Four years ago, I wrote a post called “When God Communicates: Subjective or Objective?” Have you ever thought about the difference between how God communicates and how we receive what he communicates? I’m not talking about any specific type of communication, but any time God communicates with us, including through Scripture. This post is part of my thinking on this topic.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve read something similar to this a few times: Scripture is objective; but any other communication from God is subjective. This post is not directed at anyone in particular. Instead, as I’ve read the above comment a few times, I’ve been thinking about the objectivity and subjectivity of God’s communication.
By the way, I like to say “God communicates” instead of “God speaks”. Usually, the verb “speak” assumes something (audible communication) that is not always present when God communicates. So, when I say, “God communicates”, I mean many different types of communications, including but not limited to Scripture, dreams, visions, impressions, other people.
When God communicates to us, he always communicates objectively. His communication is never subjective. However, our interpretation of God’s communications is always subjective. This includes our interpretation of Scripture – it is always subjective. It is true that some interpretations are less subjective than others, but all interpretations are subjective.
It would be incorrect to say that interpretations of Scripture are always less subjective than interpretations of other communications from God. For example, when God told Abram to leave Haran, Abram did not consider that communication to be subjective. When God communicated with Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul did not consider that communication to be subjective. When God communicated to Peter while Peter was on the roof of Simon’s house in Joppa (the dream with the sheet and animals), Peter did not consider that communication to be subjective. Notice that all of these acts of communication are now part of Scripture, but they were not part of Scripture when they occurred.
(Interestingly, Peter’s dream became normative for everyone. I wonder what would have happened if Peter had thought his dream was more subjective than Scripture and had compared his dream to Scripture. But, this is another issue altogether.)
I am not questioning the importance of Scripture. I do believe that Scripture is extremely important. I believe that Scripture is inspired by God, and I believe that Scripture is inerrant in the original autographs. I believe that Scripture is authoritative. However, there are times when I’ve felt that Scripture has been placed in a position above the living presence of God Himself – and not just Scripture, but our (individual or corporate) interpretation of Scripture.
Our goal should not be to relate properly to Scripture. Our goal should be to relate properly to God. Some may suggest that studying Scripture brings one into a right relationship with God, but remember that the scribes and Pharisees studied Scripture meticulously, as do many scholars today. Studying Scripture does not guarantee that we are hearing God.
God always communicates to us objectively. Perhaps we have not heard him – as others have heard him in the past and as has been recorded for us – because we are not listening to him. Instead, we have replaced him with something else. We have made our interpretation of Scripture objective, and we’ve made God subjective.
Eric at “A Pilgrim’s Progress” has been writing a lot of good, thought-provoking posts lately. I really enjoyed his post called “We Really Can Trust the Holy Spirit.” His post is about the work of the Holy Spirit when we are gathered together with other believers – whether it is a gathering that was planned or unplanned.
There is often disagreement among the church today about what role “preparation” and “spontaneity” should play when we gather together. Should we plan what we are going to say (i.e., “when you come together, each one has a hymn, an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation”)? Or do we speak when the Spirit spontaneously directs us to speak (i.e., “and if the Spirit reveals something to someone sitting…”)? Both passages that I paraphrased are in the same context in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. So, both preparation and spontaneity seem to be in view in Paul’s instructions.
This is what Eric says:
I’ve found that the Spirit tends to use our planning/preparation in the gatherings, but this may be in ways that we could not predict. For example, I plan to study over a passage of scripture tonight. I may mention it tomorrow or I may not. I really don’t know. The Spirit will make it clear to me tomorrow whether or not I should speak about it.
It is fascinating the way the Spirit frequently brings things together as Christians gather. It happens time after time in our small fellowship. One person will read a passage that relates exactly to what someone else is going through in life. We might sing a song that has a connection to what someone else is dealing with. The list goes on and on.
So, do we prepare before we gather with other believers? Sure. Do we expect and depend on the work of the Spirit when we gather together? Yes. (Although, I do think there is a problem when someone studies ONLY to have something to say when the church gathers.)
Like Eric said above, as the Spirit guides us outside of our times together, he can also guide us during our times together. We may come together with other believers expecting (and even prepared) to say something or teach something, but that may not be what God has planned. So, we trust him to know when to speak as well as what to speak.
Like Eric said, we really can trust the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Ephesians 4:7-16. After focusing on our unity in Christ in Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul turns to the great diversity among the body of Christ – all worked out by the Holy Spirit according to the grace of God.
But, as he comes to the end of that passage (Ephesians 4:16), Paul stresses that the diversity is not simply a demonstration of the myriad grace of God, it is also through all of the different (diverse) parts of the body of Christ that the Spirit works to build us all up – when we are all working together as God directs us and provides for us.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul focuses on a few of the ways that God works through his children: as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. These people who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit and given by Jesus Christ equip the church for works of service. The evangelist, then, proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also equips other believers to do the work of service of proclaiming the gospel, even those who are not gifted as evangelists. Those gifted at teaching and shepherding not only teach and shepherd others, they also equip other believers to do the work of service of teaching and shepherding as well.
But, what about the apostle? How does the apostle equip the church? Usually, I’ve heard it suggested that apostles equip the body of Christ by proclaiming the gospel, revealing the word of God, and teaching and shepherding. But, these are actually including in the work of the evangelist, the prophet, and the teacher and shepherd. What is distinctive enough about those gifted as apostles that would cause Paul to list them separately?
There is one distinction of those gifted as apostles: they are specifically gifted to travel from place to place serving God. In other words, while they may do many other things, the gifting of apostle is primarily to do the work of the itinerant servant.
So, how does the apostle – the itinerant servant of God – given to the body of Christ by Jesus to equip the church – actually equip the church as Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:12-13? What is the work of service that the apostles equip others to do?
Just as the evangelist equips others to evangelize, and the teacher equips others to teach, the itinerant servant (apostle) equips others to travel from place to place just as the itinerant servant does. I think we see a beautiful picture of how this kind of equipping (to be itinerant servants) worked itself out in the life of some believers in this passage:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESV)
While the believers in Thessalonica (a city where Paul only stayed a few weeks) did not travel as far and as wide and as often as Paul and others gifted as apostles, they did travel enough to proclaim the word of God around their region and into neighboring regions. Paul – gifted as an apostle to travel from place to place as an itinerant servant of God – had equipped them (even in a short period of time) such that they were also traveling from place to place to proclaim the word of God.
How could you see itinerant servants working today to equip the body of Christ? What are some ways that others (not gifted as itinerant servants) could serve when equipped by itinerant servants?
Addendum: Yesterday, on Facebook and Twitter, I linked to an older post that I wrote about itinerant servants. Several new comments were pertinent to this post, so I thought I would include a couple of excerpts here:
Eric writes: What I should have said is, “I would call those people ‘Christians’ or ‘Christ Followers.’ In one way or another I think it is what we’re all called to do and by making a distinction dismisses it to the role of a few.
Mark writes: Eric suggests that Christians should be itinerant in general, and I absolutely agree, but I hesitate to make that an absolute. I’m guessing there are many Christians around the world who never leave their village/town, and certainly the duration that someone feels led to stay/go will vary widely. But I think Eric brings up a great point that in general, Christians should be less tied to some tangible thing (house/job/preference) and be more tied to the leading of the Spirit, wherever and to whomever that might lead.
Greg writes: Looking over 2 millenia of the church, we also have a really messy macro trajectory, with very little scripture to back up anything we have done or built. And yet, histories pages are filled with the love and leading of Gods people, and His blessing on all of us.
And today, I’m genuinely jealous of my children who I suspect are going to see the glory of God like few generations in history.
Yesterday, I asked the question, “How far does your heart extend?” With that question, I was asking where along the spectrum God has placed your loves and passions: from those nearby to those far away and across the globe. Neither extreme is better than the other.
In this post, I ask a similar, but someone different, question: How has God gifted you by his Spirit? This question refers to what is typically called “spiritual gifts.”
In Scripture, there are several different lists of spiritual gifts: Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:27-30, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 4:10-11 (my personal favorite). While many suggest that Ephesians 4:11 is a special (and exhaustive) list, I do not think any of these lists are intended to be exhaustive.
In fact, in many ways, it’s impossible to know exactly which spiritual gift someone may or may not have or which spiritual gift someone may or may not be exercising. (And, yes, for the record, I think that “spiritual gift inventory” tests are pretty useless.) Of course, we can observe how God chooses to work through us and others. But, even that may not tell us everything.
Consider Paul. In the Book of Acts and in his letters, we see Paul working as an apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher, servant, encourager, giver, leader, tongues speaker, healer, helper, discerner, etc. So, what spiritual gift did Paul have?
Now, some might suggest that Paul was a super-Christian, but his co-worker Barnabas is described in many of the same ways as Paul, and God worked through Barnabas in many of the same ways listed above. The same could be said of other people in the New Testament, although we have less information about them.
This does not negate that fact that some people in the New Testament were known for one specific type of “gift.” For example, Philip was known as an evangelist while his daughters were known as prophets. (Acts 21:8-9)
So, as we’re thinking about how God has gifted us by his Spirit, we can begin by understanding that the “gifts” listed in Scripture may not be “hard and fast” or easily distinguished. Also, it’s possible that God can work through people in different ways at different times and in different locations and situations. At the same time, it’s also possible that God can choose to work through someone in a specific way primarily.
In Part 2, I’ll look at one of the dangers of considering how God has gifted us by his Spirit.
Keith at “subversive1” has written on a topic that (I think) is often misunderstood. His post is called “58 Fold Ministry?” and it tackles the subject of the (so-called) five-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11.
He examines the list of spiritual gifts (and spiritually gifted people) in Ephesians 4:11, but he also compares that list to the ones in Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. (Of course, there are others lists in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and – my personal favorite – 1 Peter 4:10-11.) And, he asks a very good question: Why are the spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4:11 considered the “five main gifts in the church today, or that these five should be exalted above all the other gifts…”?
Keith decides that there are at least 58 gifts listed in various places in the New Testament, and the each of these (and any others) are necessary for the growth and vitality of the church. (Sounds similar to what Paul says in the entire section of Ephesians 4:7-16.)
I love Keith’s conclusion:
At face value, the message of the New Testament is that you matter. Your gift – whatever it is – is necessary. You are important. You have something the rest of us need. We have something that you need. We need one another to grow and to thrive.
As Paul says in each of these passages, there are many gifts, and they are all given by the One Spirit, and we are all members of each other. Our gifts are not for us, they are not about us, they are about one another and the purpose of these gifts is to be a blessing to everyone else and to exalt them, not ourselves.
So, I’m not sure about you, but since there are something like 58 different spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible, I’m a big fan of the Fifty-Eight Fold Ministry of God.
Please take the time to read the rest of Keith’s post! It’s worth the read.
So, are those gifted as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers important for the edification of the church today? Absolutely! But so are those who are gifted as servants, helpers, administrators, etc. etc. etc.
If you are in Christ, then he desires to work through you to build up his church.
It seems like Dan makes two points in this post. First, he’s saying that it’s possible to do certain activities without the involvement of the Holy Spirit. Second, he’s saying that a “real church” (as demonstrated in Scriptures) cannot operate without the Holy Spirit.
For the first point, Dan says:
We can sing songs without the Holy Spirit.
We can recite lines of liturgy without the Holy Spirit.
We can talk with others about life without the Holy Spirit.
We can prepare sermons without the Holy Spirit.
We can listen to those Spirit-less sermons without the Holy Spirit.
We can offer prayers without the Holy Spirit.
We can partake of a thimble of grape juice and a tiny cracker without the Holy Spirit.
We can run through our optimized order of service without the Holy Spirit.
As to the second point, Dan says:
The church assembly of the Bible was led by the Spirit from beginning to end. It depended in the Spirit for everything. Without the Holy Spirit, the charismatic gifts would cease to function. There would be no prophetic words possible. No words of knowledge or wisdom. No healing. None of the functions of a normal assembly of Christian people filled by the Spirit coming together to share their individual giftings in a public setting.
The order of the church would vanish without the Holy Spirit. What would those assembled do next? No one would have a psalm or spiritual song to bring because the Holy Spirit would not be there to inspire its singing or bringing. What inspired-in-the-moment message would be possible? Who would lead?
The people in the church assembly, those equipped by the Spirit to use their gifts, would have nothing to do, their reliance on the Spirit shattered by His absence. They would sit passively, lost.
A real church without the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide, equip, use, and mobilize would cease completely to be what it is supposed to be as depicted in the Bible.
Interestingly, the Holy Spirit often leads us to do certain activities that can be done without him or apart from him. So, how can we tell the difference between doing certain activities WITHOUT the Holy Spirit and doing them WITH the Holy Spirit?
In this pseudo-series, I’ve said that life in Christ is synonymous with life in the Spirit (which is the same as being given the Spirit, being indwelled by the Spirit, or being baptized by the Spirit). (See my post “Life in Christ is Life in the Spirit.”) Next, I said that a person who is indwelled by the Spirit can be filled with the Spirit or can grieve or quench the work of the Spirit. (See my post “Life in Christ and Filled with the Spirit.”)
While the Spirit indwells and fills an individual, the Spirit also works through a group of people who are all in Christ (in the Spirit). We see this dual (individual and community) aspect of the work of the Spirit in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he recognizes the individual as the temple (dwelling place) of the Holy Spirit and the community as the temple of the Holy Spirit:
Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]? (1 Corinthians 3:16 ESV)
Or do you [singular] not know that your [singular] body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you [singular], whom you [singular] have from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19 ESV)
In each case (both the singular “you” and the plural “you”) there is only one “temple.” The Holy Spirit somehow makes his one home in the individual believer and the gathered community of believers.
We have already seen that the Spirit works within the individual believer to help that person live in Christ. But, we can also see many examples of how the Spirit works through the community to help members of that community to live in Christ. The point, though, is not for someone (or group) within the community to tell others what the Spirit is doing, but for the community to help one another listen to and learn from the Spirit who dwells within each of them.
The work of the Spirit through the community is especially important in situations where an individual is grieving or quenching the Spirit living within. It’s at this time that the community (in the Spirit) can help the brother or sister turn back toward God in order to understand what he is doing in and through them.
We see this kind of interaction of the Spirit through the community in passages such as this one:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. (Galatians 6:1 ESV)
While that particular passage points toward a brother or sister who has moved toward sin (transgression), problems also occur when a brother or sister is not actively following the Spirit. That’s the kind of community (in the Spirit) involvement that we find in this passage:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works… (Hebrews 10:24 ESV)
So, we’ve seen that the Spirit indwells us to bring us into the life of Christ. The individual who has been given the Spirit can either be filled with the Spirit (yielding to the Spirit’s work) or can quench or grieve the Spirit (refusing to yield to the Spirit’s work). Now, we see that the Spirit can also work through the community to help an individual (who is also indwelled by the Spirit) to turn back toward the work of God in his/her life through the Spirit.
In my post “Life in Christ is Life in the Spirit,” I suggested that to be in Christ (i.e., to be a disciple of Christ, or a believer, or born again, or any of the other terms used to describe God’s children) is the same as having received the Holy Spirit (to be indwelled with the Spirit, to be baptized by the Spirit). I came to this conclusion beginning with Paul’s focus on receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 19:1-6, then by comparing this to Paul’s statements in Romans 8, especially Romans 8:9.
However, being indwelled by the Holy Spirit is not the end of the story. In fact, receiving the Spirit or being baptized by the Spirit is the initial point in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. This does not mean, though, that being indwelled by the Spirit is an unimportant or less important aspect of our life in Christ. In fact, everything else that follows in our life in Christ must flow from the life of the Spirit (of Christ) who lives within us.
In fact, at several points, our life as followers of Jesus Christ is defined or described as fruit produced by the Holy Spirit (i.e. “fruit of the Spirit”). This means that the “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, etc. is being created in and through the disciple of Christ by the presence, power, and work of the Holy Spirit who is indwelling that person.
When a person is operating (living, working, serving, whatever) according to the work of the Spirit within, that person is “filled with the Spirit.” It is interesting that Paul contrasts being “filled with the Spirit” with being “drunk with wine.” Just as a person is influenced and even controlled by drinking much wine (more influence/control with more win), a person can be influenced / controlled more and more by the life of the Spirit living in them.
But, that “filling” is not automatic. The Spirit (as with the Father and the Son) does not force himself on any person, even a person that he indwells. He is always there, always instructing, always exhorting, always comforting, always directing. But, we are not always listening or responding.
In fact, we are told by the authors of Scripture that we can quench the work of the Holy Spirit within us. (1 Thessalonians 5:19) It is extremely interesting that this command (“Do not quench the Spirit”) is in the context of encouraging, respecting, admonishing, helping, being patient, rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. While there are certainly other activities of the Spirit in and through a follower of Jesus Christ, these represent a good example of the kinds of things that the Spirit does through those he indwells.
Also, we are told that it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit within us. (Ephesians 4:30) Again, this command of setting ourselves against the work of the Spirit (“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”) is given in the context of transformation (from lying to speaking the truth, from holding on to anger to releasing anger, from stealing to sharing with others, from tearing others down to building others up) as well as putting away things like wrath, anger, and malice and replacing them with kindness, a tender heart, and forgiveness.
These two groups of activities / attitudes (as well as the fruit mentioned above and other similar passages) can help us determine if we are allowing the Spirit of God to fill our lives or if we are quenching or grieving the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The indwelling of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of our walk with Christ. As the Spirit fills us – and we do not grieve him or quench his work within us – we continue to mature in Jesus Christ.
Our church continues to study the Book of Acts together. Last Sunday, a good friend and fellow elder led our discussion through Acts 19. While there were many good and challenging comments made during our time looking through this chapter, I especially enjoyed our discussion about the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 19, Paul returns from a trip to Antioch, making his way over land (instead of sea) until he reaches Ephesus again. He had stopped briefly in Ephesus before, but had not spent much time there. This time, when Paul arrived in the city, he ran into a group of twelve disciples of John the Baptist.
According to Luke, this is what happened:
And he [Paul] said to them [the disciples of John the Baptist], “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:2-6 ESV)
At first, it may seem strange that Paul first asks these disciples if they had received the Holy Spirit. He did not ask them what they believed about Jesus Christ. Instead, he asks about the Holy Spirit. But, we must remember that the Holy Spirit only comes into a person’s life through Jesus Christ.
In fact, this question concerning the Holy Spirit makes perfect sense in the context of John the Baptist’s disciples. John himself had pointed out the difference between his own baptism (in water for repentance) and Jesus’ baptism (in the Holy Spirit). (See Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; and John 1:26, 31-34.) This distinction (between baptisms) was so important that Jesus reminded his disciples (of his own words) concerning this just before his ascension. (Acts 1:4-5) Similarly, Peter remembered Jesus’ message and reminded the other believers about the importance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when some questioned him about Cornelius’ salvation. (Acts 11:15-16)
For Paul, following Jesus (being his disciple or having new life in Christ) was the same as being baptized by (or indwelled by) the Holy Spirit.
In case the passage in Acts 19 does not convince us that Paul equated life in Christ with life in the Holy Spirit, he spells it out in his letter to the Romans. While this chapter helps us understand many aspects of our life in Christ, it certainly shows us that this life is the same as life in the Spirit:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9-11 ESV)
Life in Christ is life in the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we do not have Christ, and without Christ we do not have the Holy Spirit.
How do we know that we are in Christ – that we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ? The Holy Spirit tells us himself. We see this specifically later in Romans 8 when Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:16 ESV)
Of course, there are also external indicators that we are children of God, followers of Christ, and indwelled by the Holy Spirit. What are those indicators? Well, I’ll talk more about those in my post tomorrow morning when I look at the difference between being indwelled by the Holy Spirit and being filled by the Holy Spirit.
Returning to Acts 19 briefly, since the disciples of John the Baptist did not know that there was a Holy Spirit (much less had they received the Holy Spirit), it was instantly clear to Paul that they were not disciples of Jesus Christ either.
Our church recently began a study of the Book of Acts. Yesterday, we discussed most of Acts 2 together. While I was studying the passage last week, I noticed a parallel with an Old Testament event/passage.
In particular, I saw some similarities between God filling the tabernacle after it was built and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
For example, consider this passage that begins Acts 2:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (Acts 2:1-3 ESV)
There are lexical similarities between the passage above and the description of God’s presence in the tabernacle. For example, consider this passage from Exodus:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40:34-38 ESV)
There are other passages in the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) that describe the glory of the Lord as fire. Also, the passage that describes God’s glory filling Solomon’s temple is similar.
If Luke did intend a connection between the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the filling of the tabernacle (and later temple) by the glory of God, then there is a difference that is extremely important.
On the Day of Pentecost, Luke points out that the “tongues of fire” appeared above each of the followers of Jesus, not above a place as we saw in the Old Testament accounts.
Have you ever read anything that compares/contrasts the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost with God’s glory filling the tabernacle/temple? Do you think there are similarities here that Luke intended his readers to notice? If so, why would he want them to notice the similarities? What about the differences? Is the primary difference that I pointed out important?