First Sunday in Advent: HOPE


Advent Sunday begins a season of expectancy. 

Remember that first appointment at the antenatal clinic? Something -Someone!- is on its way and the weight of the expectancy gathers momentum! The notion is expressed in the line of that old carol: “Come, thou long expected Jesus…”

For Advent Sunday, my Lectionary splices together two prophecies: one from Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16) and the other from Simeon in Luke’s Gospel ( Lk2:25-35).

The first prophecy looks forward from a particular point in history. The other looks back. It’s as if two bookends are being employed, between which is the long sad history and purpose of Israel. It’s as if a puzzle is about to be resolved, like the last chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.

Here’s Jeremiah:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.  ‘“In those days and at that time, I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called:     The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.”

What’s the story?

The city of Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar and the people face exile (Jer 32:1-6). Jeremiah is in prison for sedition (Jer 32, 33), since he regards the the kings (and priests) as the major reason for the present disaster (cf. Jer 22). The people are about to lose everything that has given meaning to their lives – the temple, the city, king, priesthood, their homes, family etc. God seems to be silent, or preoccupied with judging Israel for past wrongs. But the passage offers future hope.

I am going to fulfil the promise! “The promise” most likely refers to the promise to David, that his dynasty would endure (2 Sam7). The contemporary story of Israel was the destruction of that very dynasty. In the face of the unspeakable, Jeremiah prophesies HOPE.

 And, centuries later, Simeon delivers:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,  you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’ “( Lk2:25-35)

Luke is giving us a picture of someone righteous and devout waiting faithfully for something he knew was to happen. He is waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” The restoration of the Davidic King. The Spirit promises him, moves him into place and then reveals Jesus. His waiting was not in vain! The baby has arrived!

Jeremiah was anticipating the distant fulfilment of the promise that there will be a descendant of David who will ‘execute justice and righteousness’, a promise that will later form the basis of messianic belief. But it also has something to say about the ‘present’, about living as people who hold a promise. 

These verses teach us a number of things about hope.

First, when you walk with God and look into His future, you have to be ready to have your mind blown! Your hope in and your ideas about God’s purpose are continually being reshaped and clarified. God walks with you in history and the promise in Jeremiah is a step on the way toward a radically new way of thinking about Israel.

If in Advent we think we await the fulfilment of a fixed and well-defined promise by God, then we only partly understand that deep sense of waiting for the Lord.

There is always the sense of surprise with God. The Gospels (Matt 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38) present the coming of the messiah, the descendant of David, as the arrival of a baby. So in our own context, as in the book of Jeremiah, the promise of God’s coming is recognised as fulfilled only with much internal debate about the ways God’s purposes of righteousness and justice (Jer 33:15-16) are best served in the world – in political, religious, social or personal terms.

Secondly, we note that the hope in Jeremiah is not only that one day there will be deliverance for Judah and safety for Jerusalem, but that a descendant of David by executing the ‘justice and righteousness’ that have been expected of the kings all along) will bring it about.

Advent is not just about something in the future. It is as much about justice today: it challenges the ways we govern ourselves, share wealth and responsibility, organise our communal life, and prepare ourselves for the future.

And the waiting itself is not an idle, passive activity. It is waiting that is passionate and active. It is about calling for reform in the world, personal and social. Jeremiah hopes not only that one day there will be a king who will reshape the people’s lives, but that, even against all that circumstance dictates, kingship itself would be reshaped so as to make new life possible.

Thirdly, hope in the coming of the Lord is always grounded in God’s own action. The prophet speaks words of healing (Jer 30:12-17), of return (Jer 31:2- 14, 23-26), of new life (Jer 31:27-30), and of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). He bases his hope in the promise of God (Jer 30:18-22), in God’s faithfulness (Jer 31:2-40), in God’s everlasting love (Jer 31:15-22), and in the certainty of God’s word (Jer 31:35-40).

Advent is not just about waiting for God to fulfil his promise.  It is also about our being transformed through waiting.

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The Deborah Principle (1)

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Introducing the principle

There is a principle that governs gifting and ministry within the kingdom of God. It is located in Gal 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is to say, there are no racial barriers, nor social class distinction, nor gender differences that inhibit the people of God. We “are all one in Christ Jesus.” This phrase can only mean an equality of position, purpose and potential.


This is emphasised on the day of Pentecost, in relation to the gift of prophecy, when Peter quotes the prophet Joel:  “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…” This was the experience of the early church. In Acts 21:8-9, Luke writes: We reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”


Paul mentions at least one female apostle, Junia or Junias. She was a 1st-century Christian highly regarded and complimented by Paul in Romans 16:7. Documents from the next century mention at least another four,  Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla. Each is described as an “apostle,” who regularly baptised converts along with preaching, healing, exorcising demons, and even raising the dead. Check out this link.

Teachers and Leaders

There is of course the restriction in 1 Tim 2:12 as regards the teaching ministry:  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man (or husband); she must be quiet.” In a generation when education was virtually unavailable to women, some scholars see this as more a reasonable rather than a misogynistic view; and, secondly, family roles were stronger and business opportunities rarer than they are today. This would appear to be Paul’s general perspective, and we need to look at all his references with care in a later session, but the New Testament as a whole presents a more nuanced picture.

Looking at the Gospels

The Gospels record that women were among Jesus’ earliest followers. Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Lk 8:1-3). These stories reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus’ ministry as disciples. There were women disciples at the foot of the cross. Women were reported to be the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. She was not only “witness”, but also called a “messenger” of the risen Christ. 

From the beginning of the Early Christian church, women were important members of the movement. As time went on, groups of Christians organised within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were considered important within the movement and assumed leadership roles. Such a woman was Lydia of Philippi, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth. After hearing Paul preach, she and her household were baptised. (Acts 16:11-15)

Paul mentions women in various areas of leadership. In the 1st century a woman’s place was in the home but Christianity offered leadership roles, dignity and status. Through building up their own house church, women could experience relative authority, social status and political power and renewed dignity within Paul’s movement. This concept is reflected in Paul’s relationship with Phoebe, Chloe and Rufus’s mother.

Let’s look at Paul’s letters

By the time Paul began his missionary movement, women were important agents within the different cities. His casual greetings to acquaintances offer solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally.  In Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions:

Priscilla and her husband Aquila. She and her husband are mentioned six times in the Bible, as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. They were also partners in the craft of tent-making. The author of Acts states that they were refugees who came first to Corinth when the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Paul mentions that at some point they had risked their necks for him. When Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila, Priscilla is listed first two out of three times. Some scholars have suggested that she was the head of the family unit.

Mary and “the beloved Persis” are commended for their hard work.

He greets Julia, and Nereus‘ sister,  who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers. He also sends greetings to TryphenaTryphosa, who “labour for the Lord’s work“, and to Rufus‘ mother. The fact that Paul singles them out indicates his respect for their ministry.  

He commends to their hospitality, Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. Paul attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. “servant”), sister, and prostatis meaning “a woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor”. There is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy. Diakonos (Gk.) is grammatically a masculine word, the same word that Paul uses in regards to his own ministry. Phoebe is the only woman to be named “deacon”. 1 Timothy discusses the criteria for deacons in the early Church which is explicitly directed to both males and females. Phoebe was especially influential in the early Church, seen in Jerusalem from the 4th century AD inscription: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in Christ.”

Women flourished in the diaconate between the 2nd and 6th centuries. The position required pastoral care to women, instructing female candidates and anoint them at baptism. They were also required to be present whenever a female would address a bishop.  In Romans, Phoebe is seen as acting as Paul’s envoy. Phoebe is named as a Patron of Paul, meaning that she would have been financially contributing to Paul’s mission.

And we’ve already noted Junia. According to Bart Ehrman, Paul praises Junia as a prominent apostle who had been imprisoned for her labour. Junia is “the only female apostle named in the New Testament”. Ian Elmer states that Junia and Andronicus are the only “apostles” associated with Rome that were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Paul greets this couple as “kinspersons and fellow prisoners” and says that “they are outstanding amongst the apostles“. The fact that Andronicus and Junia are named as apostles suggests a priori that they were evangelists and church-planters like Paul. Chrysostom, an early church leader is explicit: “How great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle.”  

Chloe was a prominent woman of Corinth. It was from “Chloe’s people” that Paul, then at Ephesus learned of the divisions in the congregation of Corinth.

In Philippians he expresses appreciation for Euodia and Syntyche his fellow-workers in the gospel. These biblical reports seem to provide credible evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian gospel. 

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Understanding the Gift of Prophecy

What is prophecy?
Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5:20, John Calvin wrote: “By the term prophesying I do not mean the gift of foretelling the future, but as in 1 Corinthians 14:3 the science of the interpretation of Scripture, so that a prophet is the interpreter of the divine will… Let us understand prophesying to mean the interpretation of Scripture applied to the present need.”
This view is very common, that prophecy and preaching are pretty much identical. Gangel writes: “The gift of prophecy is congregational preaching which explains and applies God’s [written] revelation.”  Yohn concurs: “The major responsibility of the gift of prophecy today is to study and interpret the Word of God…”

So is it like preaching and teaching? In discussing New Testament prophets, David Hill notes “that the category of pastoral preaching may be a useful designation for the Christian prophet’s speech.” But, as Hill himself would agree, we cannot completely equate prophecy and teaching.

Again, some moral leaders of our time such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi have been termed “prophets”. But while “prophetic preaching” may be a popular way of characterizing the ministry of some of these leaders, it is inadequate to define the gift of prophecy we see in the early church.

The distinctive factor of the gift of prophecy is the element of revelation. James Reisling notes on 1 Corinthians 14:26, “The use of apokalupsis instead [of prophetia] suggests that Paul wanted to stress the nature of prophecy as revelation against teaching… Prophecy receives its content through revelation, teaching from tradition.”

Prophecy and Revelation

Simply put, the New Testament does not allow a definition of the gift of prophecy which excludes revelation.  There are a several places where the distinction between prophecy and teaching can be clearly seen. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 Paul assumes that the person about to prophesy is the person who has received a “revelation” (v30). In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 those who prophecy make a public disclosure of the secrets of a person’s heart.  Michael Green asserts: “That prophecy is the same as preaching or teaching … could only be maintained in defiance of the whole weight of New Testament evidence.”

How, then, shall we define the gift of prophecy? Cecil Robeck defines the New Testament prophecy as: “A spontaneous manifestation of God’s grace, received by revelation, (sometimes as a vision, at other times as impressions or thoughts) and spoken by the Spirit through a Christian who has been given a gift of prophecy, in the language of those who hear the prophetic word spoken.”

The Christian prophet is a “spokesman for God,” much as Aaron was for Moses before Pharaoh (Ex 4:15-17; 7:1),  one who speaks what he hears by revelation rather than from his own mind.

Revelation characterizes the gift

But it also helps us to form a broader insight into the nature of the outpouring of the prophetic Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. On that day the Spirit which “searches everything, even the depths of God” mediated to the church the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:10, 16). Many gifts of the Spirit may be seen as facets of the larger prophetic gift. Paul groups prophecy, tongues, and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8. C. Peter Wagner classifies the “word of knowledge” as a species of the prophetic gift: “this ability to receive information through extrasensory means.” The “word of wisdom” is an example of the Spirit revealing to the believer “the mind of Christ.”

In what sense can the gift of tongues be classed as prophecy? The glossolalia on the day of Pentecost is subsumed under the larger prophetic gift by Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:28-29 which predicted: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy....” (Acts 2:4, 16ff).  The gift of interpretation shares in the larger prophetic gift (1 Cor 14:5) by giving the sense of a Spirit-inspired Godward communication (14:2, 16), in contrast to the gift of prophecy imparting a Spirit-inspired man-ward communication.

In its broadest understanding the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit must be understood as the intimate revelation of God Himself to His people. More narrowly, the specific gift of prophecy in the New Testament is a spontaneous revelation from God for the situation at hand which is spoken by the Spirit through the Christian who has been given the gift of prophecy.

Prophecy is Revelation

Preaching and teaching explain the revelation of God to man; prophecy is itself revelation. Prophecy does not find an easy place in the church, evoking misunderstanding, confusion, and fear. Yet, biblically, the gift of prophecy is the most important spiritual gift. Paul considers it vital to the upbuilding of the church. So what is the role of prophecy for the church today?

An early perception is found in Numbers. Moses, finally convinced that God wanted to delegate his governing authority to a larger number, called seventy elders to a “committee meeting” at the tabernacle. Two failed to show up. The Spirit of God fell on the sixty-eight who attended. But the Spirit also came upon the two who remained in the camp who began to prophesy as well. Every one wanted them to stop, uncomfortable at the direct voice of God and jealous for Moses’ uniqueness as God’s prophet. They reported the incident to Moses and demanded that he stop them. He replied: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).

Moses’ dream began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on the infant church and prompted them to speak out in tongues the “mightinesses of God.” Peter, under the inspiration of the Spirit, interpreted the phenomenon thus:

“This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy….” (Acts 2:16-18 quoting Joel 2:28-29)

Tongues is classified by Peter as a variety of the prophetic gift. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that the Spirit is a universal gift to the church, and that prophecy is the characteristic gift of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul indicated that the gift of prophecy was for every believer: “For you can all prophesy one by one…” (1 Corinthians 14:31; see also vss. 5, 24). As we desire the renewal of the church this expectation of the universality of prophecy among God’s people fills us with hope.

The importance of prophecy

If we take Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seriously, we must come to the conclusion that the gift of prophecy is indispensable to the church. When we try to build churches without this gift being active, it is like trying to walk across town on crutches: it can be done, but it is certainly the hard way. The importance of the gift of prophecy is seen from from Paul’s urgency for it. He commands the Corinthians to “earnestly desire to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39; see also 12:31 and 14:1). In all the various lists and discussions of the gifts in Paul’s letters the only constant gift is prophecy. Whenever Paul makes an attempt to classify the gifts in terms of importance, prophecy is given preference over all the rest (1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:19f). Only in the two passages where Paul speaks of gifted men (prophets) rather than of the gift (prophecy) do prophets fall into second place behind apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; cf. Ephesians 2:20).

Why is prophecy so important? Just what is its purpose?

Its several functions may all be subsumed under the purpose of building up the Church. Since love for the brethren is to be the motive for desiring the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13), the purpose is to build up the brethren. The Greek word oikodome was first used of building houses, temples, and pyramids, but quickly moved to a figurative sense in secular Greek. In the context of spiritual gifts it means “building” as a process, “construction” and is “figurative of spiritual strengthening, edifying, edification, building up.” The Spirit of Christ is fulfilling Jesus’ promise, “I will build (oikodomeo) my church …” (Mt 16:18). The Spirit is in the business of constructing people and the community. The ways in which prophecy builds up the body are spelled out in detail in 1 Corinthians 14.

Exhortation and Encouragement

Exhortation and assurance are two common purposes of prophecy. Paul contrasts tongues (a God-ward speaking) with prophecy (a man-ward message): “He who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding (oikodome) and encouragement (paraklesis) and consolation (paramuthia; 1 Corinthians 14:3).”

Paraklesis has a wide range of meaning. Its root carries the idea “to call alongside to help.” The word can denote “encouragement, exhortation.” The range of meaning of parakelsis in verse 3 extends from “admonishment” (to “live a life worthy of the gospel”, Hebrews 13:22; cf. Romans 12:1) to “loving encouragement” (e.g. during affliction, 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3). Another idea expressed by paraklesis is “appeal, request,” even “pleading”. The word also extends to the idea of “comfort, consolation” (Romans 15:4; Colossians 4:8; 2 Corinthians 1:3f). Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to His followers as “another Paraclete,” One who would come alongside to the disciples them (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). A vitally important way the Spirit is fulfilling this ministry of paraklesis is through the exhortation, appeal, and comforting assurance of the prophetic word.

Paul uses the word paramuthia in 1 Corinthians 14:3 alongside paraklesis to explain the purpose of prophecy. This word means “encouragement,” especially “comfort, consolation,”[8] but is difficult to distinguish clearly from paraklesis. It derives from para, “beside” and muthos, “speech, word, saying.” In classical Greek it could refer to “any address, whether made “for the purpose of persuading, or of arousing and stimulating or of calming and consoling.

Exhortation to obedience and service as well as encouragement and comfort from the Spirit to those experiencing pain and trouble are one aspect of the Spirit’s building up of the church through prophecy.

A Specific Revelation for the Occasion

Revelation is the particular characteristic of prophecy which sets it off from preaching and teaching. Indeed, one of the primary ways the Spirit builds up the church is by means of prophecy’s revelation. Although the gift of prophecy has a great breadth, we should not imagine that its primary purpose is the setting forth of doctrine, even though “instruction” was part of its original function (1 Corinthians 14:19). Rather, the gift of prophecy was a revelation from God with a word for the particular moment. Prophecy appears to be given with an existential value in mind. It is given through a specific individual, to a specific individual or group of individuals, at a specific place, and within a specific time frame. Within that context it may be said to have a specific message with specific value.

A glance at the prophets mentioned in the early church certainly underlines this conclusion. Agabus’ two recorded prophecies were specific predictions, revelations (Acts 11:27-30; 21:10-11). At the Antioch church the Spirit spoke through a prophet to confirm Paul and Barnabas in their missionary calling (Acts 13:1-2). Grudem observes, “Prophecy, then, is superior to the other gifts because the revelation on which it depends allows it to be suited to the specific needs of the moment, needs which may only be known to God.”

The great value of prophecy to the church today is the contemporary Word of God to encourage and guide His people.[ The prophetic message is “a word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11), directly from God, “good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).


A specific revelation can be particularly powerful in bringing conviction of sin and of God’s presence to unbelievers or backsliders who are present in a church gathering. Paul suggests to the Corinthians how prophecy can work in this way:

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). For the outsider, prophecy can be a powerful sign of God’s presence among His people.

Problems with individuals in the body or with the body itself may also be pinpointed by the gift of prophecy. James Dunn observes, “Prophecy prevents a man pretending to be other than he is–prevents the believer hiding behind a mask of pretended righteouness, of apparent spirituality. At any time the prophetic word may expose him for what he is.” Thus prophecy builds up the church by converting the unbeliever and purifying the believer.

The variety of ways the church is built up by prophecy accentuate its necessity for the present day church. Words of comfort and assurance, words of pleading, words of exhortation and admonition, words of exposure and correction–all of these are designed by the Spirit to bring and maintain renewal in Christ’s church.

We cannot afford to despise the gift of prophecy. Nor can we allow its capacity for misuse and misunderstanding prevent us from embracing it. Rather we must diligently seek to curb its abuses by the guidelines of Scripture and “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21), so that the great constructive value of prophecy may be experienced by our churches.[15] Through this unique spiritual gift the church is enabled to grow, mature and move forward according to the will of God. “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy … so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5).

The practical beginnings of the gift of prophecy for most is first a firm conviction that the gift of prophecy is for today and that God fervently desires us to exercise it. We have demonstrated in other articles the continuing nature of the gift. And we have observed the intense terms in which Paul urges this gift. Three times he urges the church to prophesy, using the strong term “earnestly desire”, Greek zeloo (12:31; 14:1, 39). This word comes from the root zelos, “excitement of mind, ardor, fervour of spirit”, and means “to burn with zeal,” “to strive, desire, exert oneself earnestly for something.”  Furthermore, he urges “all” to prophesy (14:24, 31). If this is our conviction then we will seek God earnestly to be used in this gift so that He might upbuild His Church through us. A passive attitude, “I won’t seek it, but if God wants to give it to me, it’s okay with me,” is contrary to this instruction.

Second, the believer who is sensitive to the Spirit will receive a revelation of what he is to speak. This can be the actual words of the message he is to bring, or at least the first several words of the message. Sometimes, instead of the specific words, the believer will receive a clear sense of the message. This is not the time to speak it out, but the time to ask God what He wants done with it.

Third, the believer receives from God the conviction that God wants that message spoken to the congregation. Yocum writes: “All the experiences of prophecy I have ever heard others describe or read about in Scripture contain those two elements–an urge to speak a message that has been received and the conviction that the message and the urgency both come from the Holy Spirit.”

How does one achieve a complete certainty that God has given him a message to speak? Like learning anything this sensitivity comes from being obedient to what we believe to be from the Holy Spirit. Later feedback from others as the prophecy is “weighed up” will help us.

Though the Spirit is not compulsive, yet He can be strong in His urgings to speak forth. When Jeremiah was tempted to suppress God’s Word, he resisted it in vain:

“If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.” (Jer 20:9)

Amos described it thus:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

God is abundantly able to show us what He desires, if we but desire to be used by Him.

Fourth, the believer waits for an appropriate time in the meeting to bring the message. If it is truly of the Holy Spirit the message will wait; in fact the conviction that we must bring the message will increase rather than decrease.

Appropriate times for the prophetic word need to be available in a meeting of the church (1 Cor 14:26). Ralph P. Martin observes that prophecy was probably found in the context of praise and singing. Worship and focus on the Lord sensitizes us to His voice and His presence among us. An appropriate time to bring a prophetic message might be immediately following a time of singing and praise. A wise leader would do well to pause here to see if God wants to speak to His people. Another time might be during a time of public sharing of answers to prayer and needs. A third time might be following a teaching. Paul makes it clear that prophecy should not interrupt another person (1 Cor 14:30-33), but he is equally clear that the prophetic gift should not be despised (1 Thess 5:20).

Four Common Problems as we prophesy

In order to exercise the gift of prophecy we must have the measure of faith necessary (Rom 12:6). This faith comes through convictions developed by the Word of God (cf. Rom 10:17). It also comes through acknowledging and exposing our debilitating fears before the light of His truth and His Spirit. There are several common fears with which we must deal.

First, the fear of what people might think if “I choke up and make a fool of myself” is common. The root here is pride as well as unbelief in the power of the Spirit. In some ways this fear is a vicious circle: we may fear that we will not be able to deliver God’s message completely, and this very fear makes us panic so that we do not do so. Fear is dispelled by faith–by focusing on and trusting the One who will help us speak His words.

Second, there is often a fear that “I’m making it up as I go, and just saying stuff out of my own mind,” and therefore mislead people. The only antidote for this is asking the Spirit to move us more strongly to prophesy so that we know for sure it is He moving us. Also, the assurance that the prophetic word will be judged by a loving, caring, supportive community, encourages us that the body will be protected and that we will not be “put down” in a hurtful way if our prophecy was not pure.

Third, there is sometimes a hesitancy to push ourselves forward because of a feeling of unworthiness. This is a false humility. In fact, it is a subtle sort of pride. Jesus is the One who has made us worthy, and it is His word we seek to bring. We are not promoting the messenger but the message. Related to this is a fear of embarrassing others, perhaps a family member, with our gift. Again, we must resist the pride which would keep us from speaking for God because of what others might think.

Fourth, we are sometimes paralyzed by a fear that the prophecy will not be accepted by the group. We might fear that those who do not accept Charismatic gifts will be offended or some division will result. The first question is, “Is the message from God.” and the second, “Does He want me to speak it on this occasion?” If the answers are positive, then it is up to Him to deal with the results of His word, not us. We are just spokesmen. That does not mean that we are to be unsubmissive to the leaders of a congregation, but it does mean that we are not to be apologetic about the divine gift of prophecy.

The gift of prophecy is a divine gift. God would not have given it unless it were important. In fact the gift of prophecy is one of the highest gifts we could desire. It is indispensable for the edification, exhortation, and comfort–for the spiritual renewal and health–of a congregation. Therefore, let us have God’s attitude toward the gift. “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1).

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Reviewing Campbell on “Wrath” in Romans

In Douglas Campbell’s 2009 book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul , there’s a useful approach to understanding the idea of “Wrath.” Paul, after a normal introduction, seems to state a thesis about the “wrath of God” – “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) — and then works it out, with the word orgè, “wrath,” appearing twelve times throughout Romans. Only that first time, however, does it appear as orgè theou, the “wrath of God”; the other eleven times the word orgè appears solo, that is, as simply “wrath.”

Why? Because Paul is subtly reworking the “wrath of God” as a function of human idolatry.

That is to say: he’s talking about what we do, and not what God does.

The basic insight for this reading of “wrath” in Romans comes from Robert Hammerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, and James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. But Campbell suggests something else. That is, that the words “wrath of God “in 1:18 don’t reflect Paul’s teaching but express an opposition perspective. “Wrath of God” is how his opponent talks, not Paul. Campbell argues that the only thesis which solves all the questions about the reason for Paul writing Romans when he did is that he had to make a preemptive appeal against the Judaizing Teacher akin to the one at Galatia. That’s why he had to write before making specific travel plans. That’s why much of the language of “justification” is similar to that of the Letter to the Galatians.

But there is also a significant difference from Galatians. He started that church. The Galatians knew him intimately and he them. But Paul hasn’t ever been to Rome. They don’t know him, and so he must speak to the Romans differently than to the Galatians. They don’t even have a first-hand version of what Paul’s Gospel is about. He will need to give them a full version in writing. But he will also have to argue against the opposing Teacher with the disadvantage that he is there and Paul isn’t. What is Paul’s solution? According to Campbell, it is to use the Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy of Diatribe. And the latter always includes a statement of the opponent’s position, often with a “speech-in-character” effort to put things in the words of the adversary.

Also crucial to understand is that Diatribe (as well as sending epistles) was generally an oral performance with the speaker using different voices, or with more than one speaker involved. Paul would have trained the reader or readers to speak in different voices. The formidable task for subsequent generations is to isolate those different voices in a text that is intended to be read aloud in those voices.

It’s almost like Jesus saying: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.

It’s like presenting a formal debate, and arguing both sides.

Campbell argues that Romans 1:18-32 is Paul’s “speech-in-character” presentation of the opposing Teacher’s basic theology. And the words wrath of God represent the heart of their disagreement. Campbell writes:

“In short, Paul seems to be stating in v. 18 — in a suitably pompous manner — that the initial and hence essential content of the [Opposing]Teacher’s position is a vision of the future wrath of God — of God as retributively just. And Paul does not think that this is the essential nature of the God of Jesus Christ. So he contrasts the Teacher’s programmatic theological claim quite deliberately with the initial disclosure of his own position — his gospel — which speaks of the saving intervention of God and hence of the divine compassion (vv. 16-17). Paul is stating here compactly that fundamentally different conceptions of God are at stake in these two gospels. Moreover, it is immediately apparent that the Teacher’s conception has no significant input from Christology. The stylistic parallel therefore denotes a deliberate contrast between two quite different theological programs.”

Those two programmes, in a nutshell, are a choice between understanding God’s justice as retributive or transformative.

I find this very helpful, because Paul’s subsequent solo use of “wrath” now becomes a careful contrast with the Teacher’s typical use of “wrath of God.” Paul says “wrath” because the most crucial and obstinate consequence of our idolatry is the kind of wrath we inflict on one another. Having trotted out the Teacher’s favourite forms of Gentile idolatry, he turns now to the form of idolatry that only an anti-idolatrous person can commit: wrathful judgment against other people’s idolatry.

This is made explicit in the “therefore” which immediately follows 1:18-32: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (Romans 2:1-2)

This is now Paul beginning to counter the judgmentalism of the Teacher. When we judge others, in other words, it is its own form of idolatry.

We portray our judgment as God’s judgment.

And so, several verses later, Paul can deduce the logical consequences of this idolatry: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Wrath is simply “wrath” here, and no longer the “wrath of God,” because it can instead be seen to be the wrath we store up for ourselves, due to our idolatry of righteous violence.

On the “day of wrath,” namely, the time when our human wrath comes to roost, God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, precisely as something different from our wrath. It will be revealed as a love that reaches out in grace as a free gift in faith (Rom. 3:21-26) even to sinners, to God’s enemies (Rom. 5:8-10). Those who refuse the faith of Christ — namely, faithfulness to an unconditionally loving God — will continue to live in faithfulness to the false gods of our own wrath and so will end in that wrath. It might be said that, on the day of wrath, the alternative will finally be clear to us: nonviolence or nonexistence. Either we seek the righteous, forgiving, nonviolent judgment of God that we experience in Jesus Christ, or we are handed over to the logical end of our own wrathful, violent judgments upon one another — and the wrathful gods we use to justify them.

Checking the Greek

Paul’s reworking of wrath is such an important matter that we should briefly consider several further instances of the word “wrath” in Romans. First, we have to challenge the gross mistranslations in the NRSV. The words of God in the “wrath of God,” as translated in these two verses, are completely absent in the original Greek text. The NRSV translators inserted the words “of God,” and thus provide an inadvertent illustration of the idolatry of interpreting our human wrath (and the violence connected with it) as of God. Here I am arguing that Paul is subtly trying to work towards the exactly opposite insight: that we would finally see human wrath, which we have formally seen as of God, as of us instead.

Second, consider Romans 3:5: “But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)” In this instance, inflicting wrath is explicitly connected with God, but Paul amazingly also makes explicit that this is precisely a human way to think — namely, it is idolatry. I can hardly imagine a more direct presentation of the thesis here. Paul asks about God’s justice, whether it can be seen in terms of God inflicting wrath on us, and then explicitly tells us that seeing things in these terms is our human way of thinking, a worldview deeply ingrained in our anthropology, not in God’s nature.

Finally, we might still see in Paul’s thinking a connection between God and wrath in Romans 9:22: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction.” The translation implies wrath of God by giving us “his wrath,” referring to God. But, once again, the translators have added what isn’t there in the Greek. Technically, the first his (autou in the Greek) is not there, yielding a more literal translation as, “desiring to show the wrath and to make known his power.” I would therefore suggest the following overall message of this verse as: “What if God, desiring to show the [human] wrath and to make known his power, has endured the objects of wrath made for destruction” — the “objects of wrath” being things like the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails, the cross, etc. In other words, “the wrath” and “his power” are being contrasted here. God has made known his power as distinct from human wrath precisely by enduring in Jesus Christ the typical objects of our wrathful judgment. 

God permits us to afflict ourselves unknowingly

Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in commenting on Romans 1:18-3:20, says:

“The wrath revealed in the gospel is not the divine vengeance that should have fallen on us falling instead on Jesus, but rather the divine nonresistance to human evil (cf. Matt 5:39), God’s willingness to suffer violence rather than defend himself or retaliate. It is the permission granted us by God to afflict ourselves unknowingly; it is the divine nonresistance to human evil. It is God’s unwillingness to intervene in the process of action and consequence in the human world by which we set up and operate the system of sacred violence, and so paradoxically a sign of love as the refusal to abridge our freedom and a respect for our choices even when they are catastrophic. (Sacred Violence, 101-102)

In contrast to our violent wrath, God reveals his power as nonviolent love, that is, as love which suffers violence rather than inflicting it.

The way of Jesus is the way of non-violence

Faithful disciples of God’s power in Jesus Christ live out a way of “nonviolence.” And “nonviolence” is clearly the heart of Jesus’ faith, the faith by which he was able to endure the violence of our wrath, because it is a faith in the power of God’s unconditional love, a power that manifested itself on Easter morning as the very power of Life behind Creation.

It is a faith that the power of human violence can never ultimately defeat God’s power of Life.

Abridged from

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Let’s get this building sorted out! (1 Cor 3:10-23)

It’s time to get the building sorted out.

In other words, you have to have the right foundation in order for the finished work to endure whatever comes next. Jesus’s story about the Wise and Foolish, choosing Rock or Sand, sets the tone for Paul’s comments to this fractious crowd in Corinth. They are being torn apart by arguments about authority (Should it be Paul? Cephas? Apollos?…see 1: 12-13) and wrestling with questions about sexual morality and marriage (chapters 5 and 7), lawsuits (chapter 6), boozing at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), among other things. Paul is seeking to call this distracted church back to the essentials by reminding them that “no one can lay any foundation any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (3: 11).

Sort out the building, guys. Come on, now!

And that preparation looks like hard, careful work. Paul says that in his apostolic mission at Corinth, he worked as a “wise” master builder. The NRSV rendering of this as “skilled” misses the important echo of Paul’s earlier discussion about wisdom and foolishness (1:18-2:16).

The point about Paul’s work is not just that he had skill in managerial tasks or that he was clever and effective in dealing with people. Rather, God’s wisdom is the cross of Christ, and Paul’s work was aligned with that foundational reality. True wisdom does not lie in the power, eloquence, social standing, or cultural competition that seemed to enthrall the Corinthian church (or any similar things that enthrall us). A building must fit its foundation, supported by it and shaped to match it, and Paul wisely built the Corinthian church on Christ crucified as the church’s one foundation (see 2:1-5).

God has given me unique gifts[a] as a skilled master builder[b] who lays a good foundation. Afterward another craftsman comes and builds on it. So builders beware! Let every builder do his work carefully, according to God’s standards. 11 For no one is empowered to lay an alternative foundation other than the good foundation that exists, which is Jesus Christ!

12–13 The quality of materials used by anyone building on this foundation will soon be made apparent, whether it has been built with gold, silver, and costly stones,[c] or wood, hay, and straw. Their work will soon become evident, for the Day[d] will make it clear, because it will be revealed by blazing fire! And the fire will test and prove the workmanship of each builder. 14 If his work stands the test of fire, he will be rewarded. 15 If his work is consumed by the fire, he will suffer great loss. Yet he himself will barely escape destruction, like one being rescued out of a burning house.

The Church, God’s Inner Sanctuary

16 Don’t you realize that together you have become God’s inner sanctuary[e] and that the Spirit of God makes his permanent home in you?[f] 17 Now, if someone desecrates[g] God’s inner sanctuary, God will desecrate him, for God’s inner sanctuary is holy, and that is exactly who you are.

Verses 16-17 continue to develop the metaphor of a building and make it more specific: the church is not just any building, but the temple of God, the place of God’s presence. In the context of a large Roman city with plenty of impressive marble temples, and when the Jewish temple was still standing and functioning in Jerusalem, Paul’s claim is bold and profound. It is not just that wherever God’s people live has become holy ground (though that too is true), but that the shared life of the community is indwelt by God.

Paul is not, at this point, discussing God’s presence with each individual believer. Rather, Paul’s focus is communal. It is the community of faith, “you together,” that is the holy place of God’s presence and glory. This is the third image that Paul has used in chapter 3 to describe the community of the church forming a single reality: field, building, and now temple.

This is a reminder that authentically Christian spirituality is rooted in life together as the community of God’s people, and rooted in the working of God within those very real human relationships.

It is a surprise — and a gracious one — that Paul says such a thing to the Corinthian congregation. Even these messed-up Corinthians, these people of “flesh,” these babies in faith (3:1), are still the temple, the inner sanctuary. God dwells in their midst, in the fellowship and faith that they share. This promise provides hope in the face of the church’s very human faults and struggles.

We ought to notice that not only did Paul address them at the beginning of the letter as “holy ones” (1:2 “called to be saints”), but that more recently Paul reminded them that Jesus himself is the church’s holiness from God (1:30). There are times when we have painful disagreements about what holiness involves, what it means we ought to do and be, and what holiness looks like in human lives and communities. That work of discernment will continue to be part of the church’s life, but it must take place on the foundation of Christ crucified as the shape of God’s wisdom and holiness. Furthermore, such holy discernment will take place because the Holy Spirit is at work within the life of the church.

Verse 17 and its promise of retribution against any who would destroy the church could easily be misused in self-serving and vindictive ways, a weapon aimed at those who dare to disagree with whoever is wielding it. The church knows too well the pain and destruction that comes from that approach; we need a more helpful and faithful way to hear this warning.

While people may still experience some sense of holy awe about the spaces and material objects at the centre of the church’s worship, we often treat the unity and peace of the church as something disposable and easily sacrificed. It would not be difficult for most leaders to think of a long list of ways in which that web of love and unity can be frayed and broken. Verse 17 may be difficult for us to hear not only because we have a difficult time finding a place for God’s judgment within a healthy spirituality, but also because we don’t think God cares that much about the unity of the church and how we relate to one another. Paul disagrees.

A fool for God

18 So why fool yourself and live under an illusion?[h] Make no mistake about it, if anyone thinks he is wise by the world’s standards, he will be made wiser by being a fool for God![i] 19 For what the world says is wisdom is actually foolishness in God’s eyes. As it is written:

The cleverness of the know-it-alls
    becomes the trap[j] that ensnares them.

2And again:

The Lord sees right through
    the clever reasonings of the wise
    and knows that it’s all a sham.[

Being God’s holy people will mean not living by the world’s criteria for wisdom, piety, or power. Verses 18-20 return to Paul’s contrast between God’s wisdom and the ways of the world’s “wise ones.” That distinction should put a halt to the kind of boasting that Paul had addressed in chapter 1.

There, we learned that the Corinthians were claiming that they “belonged” to particular leaders (perhaps denominationalism is the parallel problem for us). But Paul now argues that a proper perspective about God’s wisdom in Christ should completely reorient the conversations in Corinth. The church does not belong to itself, and it certainly does not belong to any other human, but to Christ alone.

All for your benefit

It has all been given for your benefit, 22 whether it is Paul or Apollos or Peter the Rock,[l] or whether it’s the world[m] or life or death,[n] or whether it’s the present or the future—everything belongs to you! 23 And now you are joined to the Messiah, who is joined to God.

Paul’s declaration in verse 21-22 that all things belong to the church does not mean that the church ought to expect (or seek) riches and property. Rather, the church needs to see all things and all people through the lens of who we are — God’ people in Christ who have been called, fed, and sent for the sake of the world (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

The people and things of the world (including the leaders the Corinthians are fighting over, and the brothers and sisters they are fighting with) are not there to advance our individual agendas, and they are not there to be exploited and used. They are there as recipients of God’s redeeming love.

That love is the shape of the temple we are called to be, fitted to the foundation of Jesus himself.  Our holiness is first of all and really only God’s holiness, and that is why it’s certain and secure. It is a participation in love, a mutual indwelling, not an achievement or performance on our part. So“If anyone wants to boast, let him boast in the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

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Charisma or Character? (Matthew 7)

Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.” (Matthew 7:17-20, The Message)

Jesus is warning his listeners to beware of false prophets. They may look like sheep, but they’re actually hungry wolves. The way to properly identify them is by their fruit: what grows from their lives and teaching. Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes, and figs don’t spring from thistle plants (Matthew 7:15–16). In the same way, legitimate spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–24) comes from a true believer.

Christ clarifies that point even further, here. Healthy trees bear good fruit, sick trees bear bad fruit. That law of nature is true of people, as well as trees. “Healthy” prophets and teachers demonstrate through their lives and character that they are authentic messengers of God (1 John 4:1).

Jesus’ words here are close to what John the Baptist said to the Pharisees: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7–8). Jesus has also challenged the teaching and practice of the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20).

 Jesus offers a two-sided warning about false believers. A religious leader may appear respectable and wise, but you must look at the fruit of his life in order to know if he truly represents God. In the same way, it’s possible for a person to claim to follow Jesus, referring to Him as “Lord,” when they are not true believers. Only those who do the will of the Father will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven—which Jesus defines as beginning with true belief (John 6:28–29). Our good works might fool other people, and might even fool ourselves, but they cannot fool God.

Max De Pree, the well-known businessman and leadership author, is fond of saying that beliefs shape practices. If you want to know what you truly believe, you only need to examine your behaviours.

What De Pree is getting at is that we all have a set of assumed beliefs, what we think we believe. And then we have our real beliefs, which are revealed in our behaviours. A person can say, “I believe in truth, it is a core commitment of my life.” But in difficult circumstances the same person may lie to gain an advantage. Their real belief or core value is not truth, it is something else. For Christians in the West we affirm and make much of doctrinal statements, views on social justice, poverty, or even what it means to be truly spiritual. Our challenge, however, is to align our practices–the behaviours of our workaday lives–with our stated beliefs. It seems that this is the same problem that is articulated by Jesus here in Matthew.

Matthew goes on to speak of the canyon that can exist between saying one thing but really meaning and doing something quite different, Jesus offers a provocative statement that sharpens the discussion regarding who is truly a disciple. Not everyone who says or affirms that Jesus is the risen Lord and Lord of their lives is really His. This sounds very similar to what we read in the Epistle of James. In other words, faith without works is dead. For Jesus, it is the manner in which life is lived out that demonstrates whether or not someone is honestly one of his people, his true disciples. Words, apparently, do not matter that much.

Then Jesus illustrates what he means in v22. Even though one verbally affirms his lordship and does remarkable deeds identical to those Jesus, namely, prophesying, exorcising demons and other deeds of power, they will not be recognised. In Matthew 25, Jesus offers the chilling words: “I never knew you.” This is quite a statement, since very often it is the performance of charismatic elements that receives all the attention.This is a powerful passage that gets at the heart of Jesus’ message. To be a follower of Jesus means that behaviours and actions–the manner in which we live out our daily lives–are the artefacts of the inner life of faith. More to the point, mere words, performance of deeds, even miraculous ones done in the name of Jesus, or random deeds of mercy do not constitute real relationship. Religiosity will not help either. This will no doubt come as a surprise for many. And it raises the question, if these charismatic elements that seem to evince an alignment with Jesus and his movement do not demonstrate that a person is an insider, then what does? What does indeed? The next paragraph offers an answer to this haunting question.

So we come to the story of two people and the houses they have chosen to build. The metaphor of the building to describe a life is particularly powerful. One person hears Jesus’ words and acts on them, putting them into practice. The other hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t act on them. Two people, two responses to Jesus’ message. The first person is like a house that has been built on a rock. Its foundation is strong and secure and can withstand any assault. The second is like a house built on the sand. Its foundation is weak and unstable and will eventually be destroyed by the storm.

The message is clear: discipleship occurs in the everyday practices of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ words here balance the misunderstanding of Paul in today’s Christian world that can be distorted into a gospel of grace without ethical demand. Jesus is not suggesting that a new law replace the old; rather, love for and devotion to God must be accompanied by a life that honours God. Or to put it another way, becoming a follower of Jesus is to decide to live one’s life according to theJesus way. One becomes part of the people of God.

Jesus’ invitation is an invitation to an encounter with God and a completely different way of living life.

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How does God guide us? (Acts 16:6-10)

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“Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”  (Acts 16:6-10)

Three times in this short passage we have indications of what might be called the “extraordinary leading” of God. First, the mission team were “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”  Then, they tried to enter Bithynia “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” And third, Paul’s dream of a Macedonian saying “‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’  apparently provided crystal-clear guidance for what to do next. “We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia.”

One wonders what it would look like, to be “kept by the Holy Spirit” from doing something. First, of course, it suggests that the team were in constant prayer, quietly seeking God, and offering the work that they were doing and the places they were visiting to God and asking for his OK.

Alternatively, their sense of God’s resistance to their travel plans might stem from more prosaic reasons. In our terms, say, we might hesitate if a team member was sick, we had a flat tyre and a visa wasn’t forthcoming. A catalogue of delays might prompt the question, “Is God saying something? Should we wait a moment and consider?”

Also, something which might look prosaic at the time, in retrospect looks like God’s leading.

But there’s something else here, something that every Christian who prays will recognise. It’s that sense of timing. The issue here, of course, wasn’t that God had forbidden Paul from preaching to certain people but that the team was to be ready to move at a moment’s notice into God’s plan and purpose. God has his times and seasons. Remember that moment in Galatians 4:4 when Paul describes the birth of Jesus as a strategic moment? “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son.” 

Again, one thinks of those “men of Isaachar” in 1 Chr 12:32, “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Once more, we see that sense of strategic timing, and God’s people ready to “watch and pray” and to wait on God’s time.

Packer put it like this: “Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.”
― J.I. Packer, Knowing God

Someone said: “Patience is power.” Patience is not an absence of action; rather it precisely that sense of  “timing” – it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.

The thing is that you never quite know how things are going to work out, do you? The chronology of life seems to have such split-second timing. As regards the above passage, for instance, Tim Maas makes the following intriguing suggestion:

“Also, immediately after Paul was turned away from Asia, Luke entered the narrative in Acts by joining Paul (as indicated in Acts 16:11, where the narrative switches from the third person to the first person). In view of Luke’s substantial contribution to recording both the life of Jesus and the history of the early church in his gospel and in Acts, perhaps Luke’s participation would not have come about if Paul had entered Asia at the time that he had originally intended.”

There’s a mysterious grey zone, of course, between the sovereignty of God and the decisions of man. But from the perspective of Acts 16, without that precise obedience of timing – a readiness to stop and a willingness to change direction, -then  the story would have been very different.

How does God guide? Through this relationship of listening. God walks with us and talks with us. Psalm 27:8 reads:

“My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

Through the practice of obedience. C.S.Lewis put it succinctly:

“[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That “faint gleam of heaven” is, I think, the speaking voice of God and our fellowship is with him. The more you learn to pay heed to that voice, the more fun life becomes.

A final word from Elisabeth Elliot: “Does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person’s seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.”




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How does the Holy Spirit guide me? (Romans 8)

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There are multiple pictures in Romans 8 of how the Spirit-filled life operates.

Perhaps we could understand the Holy Spirit as a SatNav. One of the most frequent questions with which I am met as a working pastor is about the will of God: What does God want for me? What should I do in this circumstance? Is this God talking or am I just imagining it?

Walk in the Spirit by following His lead

Romans 8:14 supplies the key verse here: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.” It is one of the fundamental hallmarks of our relationship with God. He guides us. If we don’t experience that guidance then we must examine the parameters of the relationship more carefully.

This is how Jesus introduced the subject in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” 

This is a very powerful verse. First, the guidance takes us into “all the truth.” Second, the direction of the guidance is God-centred, and not anything or anyone else. Third, it is into areas previously unknown. This is the promise and the pattern of the promise.

The tense used in Rom 8:14 indicates how this works: it is the continuing present tense: That is: as many as are regularly led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. The word son here speaks of maturity. It is not the word for an infant, but for a grown son. In order to become God’s children we have to be born again of the Spirit of God. Jesus makes this very clear in John chapter 3. But once we have been born again, in order to grow up and become mature and complete, we need to be regularly led by the Holy Spirit. Guidance -receiving it and acting upon it – is exactly how we grow up.

The SatNav offers information as the journey progresses. If you make mistakes, it either instructs you to return to the point of the mistake, or it suggests a “course correction.” With us, sometimes a course correction is possible – if you have just made a slip. But many times, it is necessary to go back to the point of error and then start over again from that point. 

Walk in the Spirit by living in grace

There is an alternative guidance system in the Bible. It is the Law. The Law is a set of rules that you must keep. If you keep all the rules—all the time—you achieve righteousness. Grace, on the other hand, is something that we cannot earn.  

The sad truth is that many Christians who have been born again never really go on to be led by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, they never achieve maturity. They never become the kind of complete Christians that God intends. That is why it is vitally important to deal with this theme of being led by the Holy Spirit. 

If you seek to achieve righteousness by law, you cannot achieve it by grace. And if you seek to achieve righteousness by grace, then you cannot do it by keeping the law. It is extremely important to emphasise this, because it has been my observation that many Christians try to mix law and grace. They seek to keep themselves in good standing with God partly by law and partly by grace. The truth of the matter is that they do not really understand either grace or law. 

For no one ever succeeds: “No one justified by the law “(Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16) According to Galatians 3:11: The just shall live by faith.”

Corresponding to those two ways of seeking righteousness, there are two alternative unions. Check back to the first few verses of Romans 7 and the illustration of marriage. We are committed -married- to one of two partners: 

  • To the Law in the flesh. 
  • Through the Holy Spirit in the resurrected Christ 

Union brings forth fruit in keeping with the nature of the marriage (either flesh or Spirit) The fault is not with the Law, but in us—the Law shuts us up to our own fleshly efforts. As we’ve seen, this is how Paul develops the idea in Rom 7:7–17.

There is a sharp differentiation here, for Grace cannot be earned! Grace operates by faith through the Holy Spirit: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14) For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:14)  And If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal. 5:18) Holy Spirit writes God’s laws on our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3 [compare Prov. 4:23]) 

The Law is from without—grace is from within. Not struggling, but yielding. Not effort, but union. The key passage here is John 15: 

“‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.(John 15:1, 4–5)

You have the choice between taking a map or taking a personal guide. The first needs constant consultation and painstaking effort. The second needs only obedience!

Walk in the Spirit by praying in the Spirit 

“For we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance.” (Romans 8:26, AMP)

The most powerful way to begin walking in the spirit is to start praying in the spirit—it is the gateway to living life above what you have ever known. Praying in the spirit accomplishes so much all at once.

  1. It charges and strengthens your spirit.
  2. It enables you to overcome the weakness of the flesh—any bad habits.
  3. It makes it easier to receive from God and keep what you have received.
  4. It strengthens your ability to resist the devil.
  5. It reveals things to your spirit you could never know by your own ability.

Walk in the Spirit by obeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit

“The sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (John 10:4, ESV) 

The Holy Spirit is ALWAYS speaking to you. There’s an answer to every problem you’re facing today—whether financial, health or family related. The worst problem in your marriage, health or finances is only one word from the Lord away from a complete turnaround. How can you access these answers? Through heeding the voice of the Holy Spirit.

The question is: How far do you want to go in your walk with God?

So many times, people will say I’d go to Africa or China if God asked me to, yet they won’t obey Him in the small things. They won’t forgive someone; they won’t stop watching ungodly television programming; they won’t spend time with Him daily.

That’s what happened to Peter. He told Jesus, “I’d die for You,” yet when Jesus simply asked him to watch and pray with Him one hour, he fell asleep.

Everything God tells you to do is important.  So, tune in to the Spirit of the Lord in all things, even when He’s telling you something that seems small, or something you don’t want to hear.

Confess this every day: “I hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and a stranger’s voice I will not follow” (John 10:5).

When you obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, you will be in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing with the right people. And you will have success and victory in everything you do. 

When you take these steps toward walking in the spirit, there will be no limit to what you can achieve. You will stop letting your flesh control you and begin living a Spirit-led life of peace, joy and blessing beyond anything you’ve ever hoped or imagined.

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“A mystery to myself”- (Romans 7:14-25)

There are four key chapters in Romans (Chapters 5-8) devoted to Christian life as the experience of God’s grace, four chapters in which Paul examines the character and meaning of Christian life in the world. The tone of these chapters is reflective, meditative. Yet, there is a lot to be considered and carefully understood. And Chapter 7:14-25 might be considered the trickiest of all.

Here’s how it begins: “I’m a mystery to myself, for I want to do what is right, but end up doing what my moral instincts condemn.” We humans are a mass of contradictions. We are first of all a blessing, but everyone knows we are also a mixed blessing. Some called this quality of human existence the state of “original sin,” a term and doctrine that many do not like. Maybe original “shame” would have described it better. All I know is that most humans have a sense of being inadequate or even broken. Yet shame is inferiority projected by others. It is never inherent.

For most humans, it often feels like there is a tragic flaw somewhere near our core. Greek and Shakespearean drama attest to this, as does Paul in heart-wrenching fashion in this passage. And who of us have not had days when we feel worthless and miserable? We do all we can to cover it up or overcome it.

Unfortunately, the word “sin” in our vocabulary implies culpability or personal fault. In fact, the precise meaning of original sin is that we are not personally culpable for it, but it was somehow passed on to us and all people share in it. The supposed “doctrine” of original sin was actually meant to be a consolation; because if we know our own self as a mixed blessing, and that each of us is filled with contradictions and is a mystery to self, then we won’t pretend that we can totally eliminate or even hide all that we consider unworthy or inferior within. This provides a program for human humility. As Jesus said in the parable of the weeds and the wheat, we can even “let them both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30). Let God decide what is truly good and what is really bad, because even our judgments are infected with “original sin.”

It seems all God wants are useable instruments who will carry the mystery, the weight of glory and the burden of sin simultaneously, who can bear the darkness and the light, who can hold the paradox of incarnation—flesh and spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering—at the same time, just as Jesus did.

Jesus himself says, “God alone is good” (Mark 10:18), implying all else is merely a partial good. Such a text gives humans an honest, wonderful, but non ego-inflating agenda. There is no appeal to the ego here, only to our deep, deep need and desire for union—with our own selves and with God. And, remember, union is a very different goal than private perfection.

So, let’s read vv 14-25, using the Passion Translation, and consider this mystery:

I’m a mystery to myself, for I want to do what is right, but end up doing what my moral instincts condemn. And if my behavior is not in line with my desire, my conscience still confirms the excellence of the law. And now I realize that it is no longer my true self doing it, but the unwelcome intruder of sin in my humanity. For I know that nothing good lives within the flesh of my fallen humanity. The longings to do what is right are within me, but willpower is not enough to accomplish it.

My lofty desires to do what is good are dashed when I do the things I want to avoid. So if my behavior contradicts my desires to do good, I must conclude that it’s not my true identity doing it, but the unwelcome intruder of sin hindering me from being who I really am. Through my experience of this principle, I discover that even when I want to do good, evil is ready to sabotage me. Truly, deep within my true identity, I love to do what pleases God. But I discern another power operating in my humanity, waging a war against the moral principles of my conscience and bringing me into captivity as a prisoner to the “law” of sin—this unwelcome intruder in my humanity.

What an agonizing situation I am in! So who has the power to rescue this miserable man from the unwelcome intruder of sin and death?

I give all my thanks to God, for his mighty power has finally provided a way out through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One! So if left to myself, the flesh is aligned with the law of sin, but now my renewed mind is fixed on and submitted to God’s righteous principles.

Interpreters have long debated what Paul is trying to communicate in this segment of his letter, with its use of “I” language. Is Paul writing of his personal experiences as a Christian? Or, is he describing the dilemma he experienced before his call/conversion to the apostolic ministry of Jesus Christ? Or, as most scholars conclude today, is Paul assuming the posture of the “universal human” and writing of the difficulties and the situation in life that is faced by all humanity prior to one’s coming into a saving relationship to God in and through Jesus Christ the Lord? It may be that Paul speaks here more in the voice of “Adam” (see Romans 5) than in his own personal voice. If so, it is clearly best not to take Paul as delivering biographical information at this point in the letter.

It seems that vv. 15-20 present the universal experience of humanity in being dominated by sin so that one is made incapable of doing even that which one knows to be right. This universal situation of humanity, as presented here by Paul, is one of extreme hopelessness, for the power of sin seems to be more than that with which humanity can cope successfully.

In turn, vv. 21-25 express the frustration of humanity as sin lords it over humankind, despite humanity’s best intentions to do what is right before God. Then, these verses declare the hope of humanity that comes as a result of the work of God (in behalf of humankind) in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this final experience of hope (in Christ) that allows humanity to look back on life and to see and admit the dire, hopeless circumstances that previously characterized the human experience.

Since Paul is really speaking of the universal experience of humanity in this text, perhaps it is best to work with general or common experiences rather than very particular or specific examples of both sin and grace. First, how have we failed, despite our best intentions? How have we experienced the frustration of knowing the right thing to do and, then, doing something else? Moreover, how do we understand such actions and failures?

Paul writes of sin. But in our culture, the concept of sin has all but disappeared. As one observer put it, sin, on the one hand, has been reduced to something like bad taste or a mistake–serving the wrong wine at a dinner or saying something embarrassing to oneself or to another. On the other hand, sin has been abstracted–so that pornography is a sin (as it should be regarded), but adultery is a bad choice.

Paul’s understanding of sin is far greater than any of these understandings. Paul writes of sin, not merely of a sin. Sin is more than the sum of human misdeeds. Sin for Paul is a force to be reckoned with, a force set against humanity and God alike. Sin takes advantage of the person and compels one to actions contrary to one’s best understandings and intentions. Sin opposes God, drives humanity to destruction; and only God can deal with this evil power in such a way as to liberate humanity from its force.

Second, how have we experienced God’s grace? How have we known the freedom that comes from God’s defeating the power of sin? And, how do we understand such experiences?

Paul writes of deliverance and gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord for such deliverance. Oddly, contemporary culture looks askance at delivery, arguing that it is contrary to self-reliance, self-actualization, and personal responsibility. A culture that does not take sin seriously has trouble recognizing the sheer necessity of deliverance. But, perhaps like Paul, only those who have experienced real delivery can appreciate the true necessity of delivery from perils too great to be dealt with in purely human terms. A college student once challenged the school’s chaplain, saying, “Christianity is just a crutch”; to which the chaplain replied, “Who says you don’t limp?”

Sin, hopelessness, frustration, delivery, grace, and great gratitude are the major themes here. Let’s take up the challenge to follow Paul’s lead and live in such a way that we each (and all) may understand herself, himself, and themselves to be addressed by the proclamation. The truth is -as Paul argues- sin is a destructive energy, a compulsive habit-pattern. In fact, addiction can be a metaphor for what the biblical tradition called sin. It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re culpable or punishable and that “makes God unhappy.” If sin indeed makes God “unhappy,” it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of our disease. considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for deliverance; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.

Much of Jesus’ work was healing, with many of his teachings illustrating the healings. Nine of Jesus’ healing stories are actually exorcisms. While the term may be off-putting, the fact that there are so many exorcisms in the Gospels speaks to their importance. I believe “possession by devils” refers to what we now call addiction. The “possessed” person is in some sense trapped by a larger force and is powerless to do anything about it. The only cure for possession is “repossession” by Something Greater than the disease. This is why Bill Wilson said that a vital spiritual experience” is necessary for full recovery.

I’m convinced that when the great medieval spiritual teachers talked so much about attachment, they were really talking about addiction. We are all attached and addicted in some way. At the very least, we are addicted to our compulsive dualistic patterns of thinking, to our preferred self-image, and to the usually unworkable programs for happiness we developed in childhood—which then showed themselves to be inadequate or even wrong.

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Does God get angry? (Romans 1)

First, it’s a way of speaking

There are many passages in Scripture that would seem to talk about God’s anger. In fact, as Psalm 7:11 puts it: God “displays his wrath every day.”

It’s important, however, to begin an answer with the reflection that all our language about God is necessarily anthropomorphic, analogical, and metaphorical. We use human terminology to express truths that are more than [merely] human. For the same reason, we use similes and analogies. We use figures of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. We use the physical to express the spiritual; we use the “material” to express the “immaterial.” Because “God is spirit.” (John 4)

And the “we” in the previous paragraph refers to the various writers of the Biblical books every bit as much as it relates to those who write about God today.

So to speak about God’s “finger” or “eye” is just a way of expressing a spiritual truth. And so, of course, is our speech about his anger.

But what about “God reveals his wrath…”?

Some would make a distinction, however, when speaking of a ‘doctrine of God’s wrath.’ When we come to Romans 1:18, for example, we read of God’s anger, or wrath, coming against “the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” In the same way of speaking that we’ve seen in Psalm 7, God gets angry at the wickedness in people, and He opposes that wickedness in an effort to turn them from evil, that they may find true life and freedom in Him. God’s motivation is love for people; to restore the relationship that sin destroyed.

Let’s read from Romans 1 in The Passion Translation:

18 “For God in heaven unveils his holy anger breaking forth against every form of sin, both toward ungodliness that lives in hearts and evil actions. For the wickedness of humanity deliberately smothers the truth and keeps people from acknowledging the truth about God. 19 In reality, the truth of God is known instinctively, for God has embedded this knowledge inside every human heart. 20 Opposition to truth cannot be excused on the basis of ignorance, because from the creation of the world, the invisible qualities of God’s nature have been made visible, such as his eternal power and transcendence. He has made his wonderful attributes easily perceived, for seeing the visible makes us understand the invisible. So then, this leaves everyone without excuse.”

Thinking about God and Humanity together

There are a few important points about God-and-humanity (together) that become a little more apparent when one uses a different translation (speaking for myself here).

First, one notices the corporate nature of sin (“the wickedness of humanity“) rather than its individual manifestation. This leads on to the second consideration, the corporate nature of humanity, that “God has embedded this knowledge inside every human heart.” Just as “all have sinned” (as Paul has already insisted, earlier in the letter, so too, have all been graced with the knowledge of God. This is the obvious consequence of the reading of Genesis 1 and 2.

Paul certainly stands upon the normal Jewish perspective of Jew v Gentile, of Us v Them. It’s a dualistic picture of in-house revelation and chosen-ness. We are in and they are out. But there’s much more to say, and, basically, “the truth of God is known instinctively.” That’s a much wider perspective, and ties back to that picture of world blessing in Genesis 12: it may start with Abraham and the Jews, but it encompasses the entire world (and Romans 8 connects it with all created life).

So where does God’s ‘anger’ fit into this perspective of blessing, of corporate humanity and God-centred destiny?

Does ‘anger’ fit into this scheme, Paul?

Every generation has to reckon with the way it understands suffering. Certainly in ancient times, and it’s referenced in the Bible (though denied by Jesus), many interpreted plagues -for example- as clear signs of God’s anger with humanity. And certainly, we still see vestiges of this way of interpreting events. The underlying theology draws on a medieval doctrine known as substitutionary atonement which held (as it still does today) that because of our many sins, we owe God a debt we can never repay—our burden of debt is so vast and we are finite. That is why Jesus, by dying on the cross, offers himself . . . as a sacrifice in order to satisfy the Father’s wrath. It is easy to see how this theology in its crudest form evolved into a belief in an angry and vengeful God, visiting humanity with punishing events.

In Medieval times, popular devotional art often depicted horrific scenes of the Last Judgment, scenes in which souls were being cast into hell, tortured endlessly by devils. The people of the fourteenth century would have constantly been wrestling with the “Why?” of suffering and the wrath of God. When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, or a sudden death occurs, or a natural disaster devastates a region, the first question that occurs is usually, “Why me?” That late Medieval context, out of which Julian of Norwich wrote, although in some ways so remote from our own, is one full of universal questions and themes. Julian’s radical insistence that we know there is “no anger in God” directs us all to look at ways in which we project our own bitterness, anger, and vengeance upon God. In a resolutely maternal way, she encourages us to grow up, to cast aside our immature and punitive images of God, and to be honest with ourselves about our own actions that have their roots in spiritual blindness.

Julian tells us, again and again, in a variety of ways, that God is our friend, our mother and our father, as close to us as the clothing we wear. She employs homely imagery and language, the vocabulary of domesticity, to tell us her experience. At the same time, she demonstrates a degree of sophisticated theological language. Julian is firm and steady on these points:

  • God is One.
  • Everything is in God.
  • God is in everything.
  • God transcends and encloses all that is made.

Ultimately, all of our conversation about “wrath” has to fit into a consideration of the shape of God, if I can put it that way. Those last four points have to form the parameters of that ‘shape.’ The words of the Bible indicate the Word that form them. Scripture, tradition and reason are accessed and assimilated in our experience.

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