“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. “ Acts 11:15
Without the revelation of the Spirit, the Church in each generation conforms to the natural, individualistic, ‘man-centred’ culture of the world around it. Every time the culture of this world affects a generation of the church, the church starts to do what the world does; magnify men and the strength of men, the strength of man’s will. That ‘gospel’ of the world can be summed up in one message; “You can do it!”. That sounds very exciting and it really appeals to the flesh, to the pride of man; the idea that you can change yourself. But because men were made to only find rest in communion with God, then under such a ‘gospel’ there is no rest, no contentment and no satisfaction. This message is what ‘drives’ the consumer market, as people look to work or buy their way into contentment. Because the message ‘You can do it’ appeals well to the flesh, it can also be found in usage across the Church, wherever naturally minded believers see ‘driving’ the Church as necessary to get it to where it needs to go sooner. The Good Shepherd does not drive His sheep but leads them, by calling out their name. No amount of zealous exhortation of the saints will move them into fruitfulness, in the way a revelation of their identity in Christ, their name, will!
“You can do it” remains the favoured message in every place where the revelation of the completeness of Christ’s work and our identity in Him (what He has done for us), has long been eclipsed by a focus on natural strength and numbers (what we can do for Him). This magnifying of man’s role can be dressed up in all sorts of religious or scriptural language, but inevitably, everywhere men are trying to achieve something ‘for’ God, rather than being led and empowered ‘by’ God, the result is always Ishmael. Whatever project we birth in the strength of the flesh, will end up fighting for survival with all around it (Gen.16:12) because when we refuse our name in Christ; ‘Us’, we are left trying to promote our name in this world; ‘I’.
Because the effect of the message “You can do it” is to point us to ourselves as our hope, it always leaves Christians more hungry and more discontented in the end, because it drops our vision, our thinking, down from the heavenly realm and onto the natural realm. Down from seeing ourselves hidden with Christ in God (Col.3:3), to seeing ourselves apart from God, still waiting for Him to ‘draw near’ and do something about our separation.
When the Church’s vision falls, from seeing by the Spirit, to seeing by the natural understanding, it falls from a realm that rejoices over the finished work, to one that cannot enter into such rest, because it cannot see past what looks unfinished (Luke 15:28-32).
Because Jesus throughout His earthly ministry, operated from the perspective of the finished work (John 8:58, 2Tim.1:9), He dealt with people on the basis of the sufficiency of His life, not theirs, the sufficiency of His work for them, not their work for Him (John 6:28,29). This heavenly perspective, endowed by the Holy Spirit, allowed Him to do what the religious could never do by natural sight; see past a person’s past and instead see the person whom God’s eternal calling and grace would form (John 5:19, Luke 19:5, Matt 9:24). This was the same Holy Spirit vision that opened Ananias’ eyes to see past Saul of Tarsus and glimpse ‘Brother Saul’, God’s chosen vessel to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:17).
The gospel of the culture we live in is; “You can do it” But the gospel of the Kingdom of God is; “Christ has done it”. That’s why the level of rejoicing in heaven hasn’t changed since the incarnation, for no-one in heaven is waiting for men to finish what God began! (Gal.3:3)
So, in every generation, when the Spirit has to move on a naturally minded Church, there is a significant change in the confession of the Church; their presentation of the Gospel. If we look at the moving of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, the following pattern is seen.
- Those filled by the Spirit, “magnified God’ in a way that appeared radical to observers (Acts 2:11, Acts 10:46).
- On each occasion a door opened for the gospel into a people group previously closed to the Gospel. (Acts 2:6, Acts 8:25, Acts 10:45-48)
- Those in authority were generally resistant to the theological implications of what the Holy Spirit had done. (Acts 4:1-3, Acts 11:1,2. Acts 13:50, Acts 15:1,2)
In effect, each move of the Holy Spirit broke the gospel out of a sub-culture and restored the cutting edge of the Church’s message, as the proclamation of what Christ has done for all men, the proclamation of ‘Good News’, (a radical departure from the mere good advice every other religious message amounted to). This news was that through Christ, God has now accomplished what the Law (and every religion of this world) could never do. (Acts 13:39, Rom.8:3, 2Cor.5:18-21).
To observe how the Church’s vision drops through the passing of time, from magnifying the grace of God, onto magnifying the response of men, we need only ask ourselves honestly, if what we as believers are ‘announcing’ to our generation, sounds to them more like good advice than good news. Does it sound to them what it sounded like to the inhabitants of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:42-45), because to them it sounded like the announcement of the abolition of religion! The resultant opposition and riots instigated by the religious authorities again and again in such cities where this news was preached, appears to confirm that this was indeed the genuine sound of the Gospel.
As Pentecostals, we love to point to the outpourings of the Holy Spirit described in Acts and point to the timeless sound of the life of the Spirit in the Church, as the sound of men and women speaking in tongues and prophesying. But what drew the attention of those who witnessed these events, was not just the manner of how they spoke, but what they were saying. In every language the message was the same; “They spoke of the wonderful things God had done.” (Acts 2:11). Every move of the Holy Spirit brought the same confession; God was magnified! (Acts 10:46). When Peter spoke to a fearful leadership in Jerusalem, he described the Holy Spirit as falling on the Gentiles “just as He had on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). How true it is, that for all of us also, ‘at the beginning’ we too had such a revelation, that our salvation was all of Him, that our testimony “magnified God”. But even the great apostle Peter struggled to walk on in that revelation of the Spirit, while living in a religious culture that was a mixture of Old and New Covenant, a mixture of self-righteousness and God’s righteousness (Gal.2:11).
In each generation, where the Church has started to be conformed to the man-centred, individualistic culture of the world, it cannot help but present the Gospel in a way that magnifies man’s response over Christ’s work. Those Jewish Christians who accompanied Peter to the house of Cornelius, almost certainly arrived ‘seeing’ the salvation of Gentiles in terms of what those Gentiles would need to ‘do’ in order to be clean enough for God to save them! Only the one among them who was carrying the ‘heavenly vision’ could greet Cornelius with the words “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Perhaps even Peter himself had prepared a ‘helpful’ message on what the Gentiles would need to do for God to accept them, but we will never know. As far as God was concerned, the Gentiles only needed to believe one truth and on the proclamation of that truth, they immediately found within themselves the faith to receive the Spirit of God and their union with Christ, for it was while Peter was speaking “these words” that the Holy Spirit filled all who believed. What were ‘these words’? What was this truth that the Holy Spirit shouted ‘Amen’ to so loudly, that it shook the early Church to its foundations?
They are found in Acts 10:43. “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” It was the proclamation of what Christ had done, the proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work of atonement, to bring whosoever who believes in Him into union with a holy God, that the Holy Spirit immediately confirmed.
Perhaps Peter did have some good advice in mind for the Gentiles that day, that he was prepared to mix in with his message, but the Holy Spirit firmly placed a full stop after the proclamation “Christ has done it.”
To be filled with the Spirit is to see from heavens perspective that any ‘helpful’ supplement to the Gospel (of what we need to keep doing to stay worthy) only detracts from the power and joy of the message (Gal.5:9). It was that power and joy that Peter recounted, when the Church in Jerusalem demanded an account of his actions that day; “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. “ (Acts 11:15). If it is the filling of the Spirit that restores to us the correct place for our full stops in our presentation of the Gospel, no wonder Paul told the Ephesians “Be thee continually filled with the Spirit” (Eph.5:18). For it was to Paul that fell, the sad but essential duty some years later, to confront this same Peter in Antioch, with the truth that spending too much time around Old Covenant minded believers, had once again moved Peter’s full stop! (Gal.2:11-13).
Every move of the Holy Spirit has brought the same effect; God is magnified and magnified in such a way that the Church is brought back into its right mind and remembers again, “This is the way we too magnified God at the beginning!” The result is always the same in each generation. The Gospel breaks out of the sub-culture that the Church has attempted to wrap it in, for the message of grace is a river that must flow out of the temple, not stagnate within it.
In this generation too, God is restoring to us His heavenly vision; the perspective of the finished work, for doors are about to open to the Gospel that only men and women who carry such a heavenly vision can walk through and the Holy Spirit is about to say ‘Amen!’ in ways that will shake the Church!