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Exodus 13: The Pillar of Cloud by day and the Pillar of Fire by night never left the people.
The journey begins. Freed from bondage they’re now on the way to the Promised Land. This is the land God promised to their ancestor, Abraham. Moses is their leader yet God provides even more direct guidance. He guides them with a daytime cloud and a nighttime fire in the sky. When the pillar moves, they move. When it stands still, they stand still. What could be easier? Honestly, I kind of envy them, don’t you? Who could ask for a more clear way to know God’s plan. Still, as I think about it, I realize that many years later Jesus promises a “pillar” of his own. One of his last words of instruction to his disciples contains the promise of the Holy Spirit who will be their Guide. Instead of scanning the horizon to follow a pillar of cloud (have you ever wondered how that worked on a rainy day or during a nighttime thunderstorm?) the disciples will have an Inner Guide directing their lives. And it won’t be a case of God dragging them along in directions they don’t want to go either (remember, even with the pillars, there are an abundance of spiritual failures coming). This Guide, promised by Jesus, transforms hearts — changing his followers at the heart level. He not only guides; he also enables us to follow. It isn’t a pillar of fire but it is a wonderful way to be led by the Lord.
Take Away: The Holy Spirit is our “pillar of fire.”
God at work in the Church
1Corinthians 12: They all originate in God’s Spirit.
One result of the “gifts contest” at Corinth is that various gifts have been elevated to the point that the “Gift-giver” has been somewhat overlooked. On the Day of Pentecost the disciples receive, not merely spiritual gifts, but the Gift-giver himself, the Holy Spirit. From that day on, the Holy Spirit has administered the gifts, bestowing them as he deems best, not for individuals, but for the Body of Christ: the Church. When the Spirit decides that the Church needs “wise council” he bestows the gift of counseling on the right person. When he sees the need for healing, he grants someone the gift of healing. If a person sees a healing take place and decides that would be a neat gift to have and starts begging for that gift, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Or, from a different point of view, if a person is given the gift of teaching and decides that their gift is the one everyone needs, well, they’re simply wrong. No individual “owns” their spiritual gift. The Church is the beneficiary of spiritual gifts, but not the dispenser of them. Paul wants the “gift oriented” congregation at Corinth to stop focusing on gifts and to start focusing on the Holy Spirit, acknowledging his authority over the Church. He’ll hand out unique capabilities and enable people to serve in various capacities in the Church as he sees is best. God, the Holy Spirit is in charge, not us.
Take Away: Let’s be “Spirit-oriented” rather than “gift-oriented.”
Starting at the start
1Corinthians 2: God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.
When Paul begins his ministry in the town of Corinth he knows that he needs to take it easy. These folks have little upon which to build. If he starts off dealing with the deeper things of God (like he does in his letter to the church at Rome) they’ll get nothing out of it and will likely turn back to their former way of life. Paul wisely sticks to the basics: Jesus died for our sins and is resurrected. This message speaks to their hearts and they give their lives to the Jesus they hear about from Paul. Still, there’s much more to learn about the Christian life. Now, though, they’re better prepared to learn of the things of God. The reason for this is that now the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. The Spirit, you see, isn’t into keeping secrets. Rather, he’s all about teaching us, leading us one step at a time into a better understanding of the things of God. To some extent we all start our spiritual journey by taking baby steps. It’s important that we, God’s people, remember that in dealing with those who haven’t a clue. There’s no need to argue the finer points of our faith with people who don’t yet have a handle on who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We start our religious talk here: “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Once a person receives Jesus into their life, the Holy Spirit begins to commune with their spirit, helping them begin to grasp the deeper things of God.
Take Away: We need to start with the basics in dealing with people, and then trust the Holy Spirit to move them along at the pace he knows is right for them.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
The story continues
Acts 28: Paul lived for two years in his rented house.
The adventure at sea over, the prisoner Paul arrives in Rome. There, in a rented house with a Roman guard, Paul sets up shop, welcoming those who come to talk about Jesus. Luke’s account ends here. Frankly, it’s not a very satisfying ending. When I conclude reading the gospels I finish each of them feeling quite satisfied. After all, the resurrection pretty much sums up the story. Beyond that, the book of Revelation probably wins the prize for having the most satisfying conclusion. The book of Acts, though, leaves me wondering what happens next. Here’s Paul, still a prisoner, waiting his turn to state his case in Caesar’s court. I have to look beyond the Bible to find what happens next. The most common speculation is that Paul is released after two years, probably because his case is thrown out of court. He returns to his missionary efforts, and, later on, is arrested again and this time is executed in Rome. Why our writer, Luke, doesn’t continue his account is unknown. Perhaps he leaves Rome, never to return, while Paul is held under house arrest. Perhaps he did continue with part two of his account but it was somehow lost. Maybe the cliff hanger conclusion to Acts is intended to remind me that the Book of Acts is still being written. After all, the purpose of the book is to tell how the Holy Spirit works through the Church to carry out the mission given it by the Lord. The story won’t be complete until the return of Jesus to this world. To some extent, all Christians are characters in this continuing story. We don’t think about it very often, but it might be said that we’re living in the book of Acts.
Take Away: The Holy Spirit continues to work in this world. How can I best cooperate and partner with him?
Believers becoming receivers
Acts 19: We’ve never heard of that – a Holy Spirit? God within us?
They’re a small gathering of believers in the town of Ephesus. They’ve repented of their sins and been baptized with water, believing in the One John the Baptist preached about. When Paul arrives in Ephesus and makes inquiries as to whether there are any followers of The Way in Ephesus, someone tells him about them. They welcome him with open arms and soon Paul is updating them on what God’s doing. As he brings them up to speed he tells them of the awesome events of the Day of Pentecost. They’re thrilled at the idea of God’s Holy Spirit living in their lives. It sounds almost too good to be true. Soon these believers are receivers. They’re filled with the Spirit. Years earlier Jesus so values this infilling that he tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit. Now, Paul encounters this group of isolated disciples and almost immediately tells them about the Holy Spirit’s infilling. This work of God is, apparently, a priority in the Book of Acts and, is, therefore, a priority for all God’s people. Paul’s focus on the status of their relationship with the Holy Spirit is a good focus for all of God’s people.
Take Away: Have you received the Spirit since you believed?
Acts 10: No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners.
The story of Cornelius is such a wonderful story. Here’s a good man, a Gentile, who cares for the needy and who makes time to pray. He’s such a good man that he gets the attention of the Lord who wants to do something more in his life. Then, miles away, we see another good man, a Jew, who loves the Lord and is a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus. God’s intention is to bring these two men together. Connecting this Gentile and Jew at the level the Lord wants takes some doing involving an angelic visitation and a vision from God. It works! As Cornelius gathers a house full of expectant friends Peter arrives and soon begins telling them the story of Jesus. The sermon has barely begun before it becomes unnecessary. This gathering of people are already on the verge of faith and all it takes is a gentle nudge from Peter to open the way for the Holy Spirit to take command of the service and their lives. How wonderful it is to experience such a move of God! It’s a blessing that both satisfies and causes hunger for more. Once we have such an experience we’re not likely to be fooled by some counterfeit!
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord has prepared the way for revival and all it takes is one or two acts of obedience to put that revival into full motion.
Acts 4: Take care of their threats and give your servants fearless confidence in preaching your Message.
The “silver and gold have I none” healing of the lame man gets the attention of everyone, including the religious leaders. Peter and John are arrested for starting a riot, but the city has caught “miracle fever” and the leaders are in danger of having a real riot on their hands if they don’t let the “miracle workers” go. The disciples are seriously warned to stop talking about Jesus and then let go. Victoriously, they return to the gathering of believers, telling all that has happened. Knowing that these leaders don’t make idle threats, the Church goes to prayer. On one hand, they ask the Lord to deal with their threats. On the other hand, they ask him to fill them with “fearless confidence in preaching.” If the Lord will, then, they seek an easy path in proclaiming Jesus. However, easy or not, they ask for boldness in telling about him. Luke reports that as they pray there’s a “mini-Pentecost” as the ground trembles and the Holy Spirit re-fills them. Out the doors they go in Pentecostal power to tell the story of Jesus. It may be that we go about this “telling” business all wrong. We tend to focus on the “make it easy for me” part rather than the “make me bold” part. There’s nothing wrong with asking the Lord to open the way, after all, that’s what happens in this passage. However, we might just see a more powerful display of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we backed it up by praying the “easy or not, make me more bold” part of the prayer.
Take Away: Maybe we lack boldness because we don’t ask for it.
What do we do now?
Acts 2: Get out of this sick and stupid culture!
It’s the Day of Pentecost. Those in the Upper Room have received the Promise of the Father. The power of the Holy Spirit flows out of them and they proclaim the Good News of Jesus with authority they’ve never had before and in languages they’ve never spoken before. Thousands come running to see what’s happening and Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon. Good people hear this message and are alarmed that the Messiah has come, been executed, and has risen from the grave. Is it too late for them? Has the long awaited Messiah come and they missed the boat? Pleading, they ask, “So now what do we do?” Peter’s answer is this: “Change your life…turn to God…be baptized…receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” A corrupt, Christ-denying culture has brought them to the brink of disaster. Their only hope, Peter says with Spirit-filled confidence, is to “get out of this sick and stupid culture.” This message of both warning and hope is still the one people need to hear today. Our culture of self and materialism is destroying our souls. We’re on the brink of eternal disaster. Our hope is in the resurrected Savior of the world. The message of God to this generation is the same as the one Peter gave to his so long ago: “Repent, turn to God, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit.”
Take Away: There’s a way through to God and that Way is named Jesus
John 20: He took a deep breath and breathed into them.
The story of the resurrection rightfully dominates the passage. If we don’t quite grasp some of the other things here it’s okay as long as we get that. Still, it’s worthwhile to slow down and, once we’ve freshly soaked in the power of the resurrection and look around a bit. Here we are, still in that first Easter and Jesus arrives inside a locked room where the disciples are gathered. On his agenda is this “breathing into them” event. He connects it to their receiving the Holy Spirit, using the word that we translate “breath” or “Spirit” to describe the event. In this they’re being invited breathe the breath of God. This is obviously related to the opening pages of our Bibles in which the Lord God makes human beings and then breathes into them the breath of life. Now, following the resurrection, Jesus symbolically breaths into his disciples the spiritual Breath of Life, the Holy Spirit. As we know, in the not too distant future, the disciples, likely in this same room, will be filled with “Holy Breath” as the Spirit dramatically comes upon them. One of the results of the resurrection is the potential of God’s people being filled with the new spiritual empowerment of “Holy Breath.”
Take Away: “Breathe on me, Breath of God.”