August 26, 2018
THE BIBLE, ITS STORY, AND OUR STUDY
(1 of 12 in a study on The Spirit, the Church, & Last Things)
Today is the beginning of our class where we’ll look at the doctrines of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and Last Things. And here’s where I want to go this morning. I want to tell you a story. I want to tell you two commitments we have to have if we’re going to do theology. And I want to give you a quick map of what this semester will look like. So, first a (somewhat lengthy) story.
A Twenty-Five-Year-Old Story
Right around my sixteenth birthday (almost twenty-five years ago), I was really struggling with what the Lord wanted me to do. It might be more accurate to say that I was fighting against what I thought he wanted me to do. I was really wrestling over whether or not the Lord was moving my heart to pursue pastoral ministry.
This kind of came to a head one Wednesday night when I was sitting in the back pew at church for a Wednesday night Bible study. I was so tired of struggling with this that I finally felt like I’d come up with a fail-proof plan to stop thinking about it. I remember saying to the Lord, “If you want me to pursue pastoral ministry, then you need to do two things for me, otherwise, I’m just going to stop thinking about it. First, I need you to affirm that you call or direct people to such tasks and, second, that you may well direct someone to where you want them to labor, even when they’re as young as I am.”
Well, the reason I thought this was a fail-proof plan was because I knew my pastor was starting to take us through the book of 1 Corinthians, and this was his first sermon. And those first sermons, if they’re introductory in nature, are just hard to get through. You talk about where Corinth was on certain trade routes, the geography and setting of the city, the pagan temples that were there, etc. Really, I always felt like the best introduction to 1 Corinthians is to say, “Imagine a really, really unhealthy church. Now ratchet that up about ten times. Okay, now we’re ready to study and understand 1 Corinthians.” So, how in the world could the Lord meet my requests on a Bible study that was simply an introductory message, right?
So, that night, as I sat there, somewhat smugly pleased with my plan, my pastor read the opening words to the book of 1 Corinthians, namely, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.” Then he said something along the lines of, “Let me just stop here for a second and say two things. One, God still calls people to tasks, just as he called Paul to be an apostle, and, two, it doesn’t matter where you are in life, how long you’ve been a believer, or how old you are.”
Well, you can imagine how my heart started racing. I couldn’t wait to talk to my pastor after the service and tell him the story. But when I did, he encouraged me to take a week and continue to think and pray about it. Then, if by next Wednesday night I still felt the same thing, I could tell the church the Sunday after.
So, I talked to my parents, and I continued to pray. And as the next Wednesday night rolled around, I felt that I had no reason to doubt what I thought the Lord was leading me to do. But I went out on our deck and prayed. As I prayed, I remembered saying, “God, I don’t know if this is really what you’re saying to me, but if it is, I’ll do it. I’ll pursue pastoral ministry.”
The next morning, I woke up and got ready for school. Thursday mornings meant getting up a bit earlier because though school didn’t start until 7:40, from 7:00-7:30 our choir teacher, a godly, charismatic (both personality-wise and theologically) lady oversaw a time of prayer each week. Well, I had to pick up a few friends on this particular morning, so we were running late. In fact, we were so late, that when the four of us walked in, the group had already begun sharing prayer requests (much like we do on a Sunday night when we gather for prayer). And that’s what made what happened next so odd.
As I walked in with the group of guys to find a seat in the choir room, the choir teacher looked up at me and said, “Hey, Lee.” I greeted her as well, but it seemed odd. For one, they’d already started their prayer meeting, and it seemed weird for her to interrupt that just to greet me. Second, I had walked in with three other guys. I mean, were they unworthy of a greeting?
So, I went and sat down in the circle, but I noticed that the choir teacher (Ms. Green) kept looking at me. And finally, looking at me one more time, she interrupted our sharing of prayer requests again by saying, “Lee, I need to talk to you for a few minutes after we’re done here.” I said okay, and instantly started wondering why in the world she wanted to meet with me.
Well, after our prayer meeting ended, I went and sat down with Ms. Green. She mentioned to me that she regularly prays that the Lord would give her some spiritual gift, word of prophecy, word of knowledge or the like to encourage her students, and on this particular morning, she had prayed that prayer. Now, this came as no shock to me. I knew she was charismatic, but growing up in a conservative Baptist church that didn’t really talk about spiritual gifts but virtually ignored any conversation regarding them, I didn’t even know what I thought about spiritual gifts like prophecy or the like. I’d read texts like 1 Corinthians 14:1 that says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy,” but I didn’t know what to do with them. But here was a lady who took this command seriously, sought to follow it, had prayed for this very thing on this Thursday morning, and was now sitting in front of me. I had no idea what she was going to say next.
What she said was that after she prayed that particular prayer this morning, she believed the Lord gave her a message to share with someone. The odd thing, she then mentioned, was that she got up from her prayer time so excited, took off for school, but then realized that she had no idea who she was supposed to share this message with. So, on her drive she began asking the Lord to let her know with whom she was supposed to share the message, feeling like the Lord was saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll show you.”
Then she said to me, “Lee, when you walked in with those other guys into prayer meeting, it’s like the Lord just put a spotlight on you, and I knew you were the person I was supposed to share this with.” Now, at this moment I was thinking, “What in the world?” I mean, I’d spent the previous week wrestling with whether or not the Lord wanted me to pursue pastoral ministry. The very night before I’d told the Lord, “I don’t know if I’ve understood you correctly, but if I did, I’m willing to pursue pastoral ministry.” And now I’m sitting here with Ms. Green, who thought the Lord had given her some kind of prophecy or word of knowledge or the like to share with me. Again, I didn’t know what to think.
Well, here’s what she said to me that morning. After sharing all that she had told me to that point, she cautioned me that what she thought she had to share with me might mean nothing to me at all. After all, she had no idea what it meant. And in hindsight, I really appreciate that word of caution. I mean, she was wise enough to know that even though she longed for the Lord to gift her so that she might encourage her students, she knew she could miss what God might have for her, thoughts be her own and in no way related to what God might communicate, or that she might misinterpret something. She was very guarded and would never have made the mistake of saying, “Thus says the Lord” or the like. But then she told me that what she thought the Lord had given her to share with me that morning was this: that I’d rightly understood what I thought the Lord was telling me to do and that he was pleased with my obedient response that I gave him last night.
Now, I didn’t sit there, hearing that, and think, “Hmmm, I wonder what my fellow church members would think about this?” I just found myself extremely encouraged. No one knew what had taken place the night before except the Lord and me. The Lord appeared to me so kind in that moment. He didn’t have to do that. Additionally, Ms. Green was overjoyed when I talked to her about how I’d prayed the previous night, what I thought the Lord wanted me to do, and what I’d said to him. She began thanking and praising God right there for how good he was to confirm my thinking in this moment as we sat there together.
But here’s my question: What was that? Was that the Spirit that gave her those words? Does that happen to everyone? Should you and I pursue those kinds of things? Should we call that “prophecy”? Those are just some of the questions I want to ask and try to answer this semester as we look at what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit, the Church, and Last Things. I hope I’ve piqued your interest.
Now, to my method. I want to lay out two essentials for doing theology that I’ll hold to this semester:
Essentials for Doing Theology
We must accept the Bible’s claims for itself
By that I mean that we must come to the Bible, reading it on the terms that the Bible demands to be read. If you read a book that tells you in the opening pages that it’s a work of science fiction about a man traveling through time and altering historical events, and you read it as if it’s a non-fiction history textbook, then you’re simply not reading the book according to the terms it set forth. The book told you it was fiction. It told you it was science fiction. It told you to read it accordingly. You don’t get to bring to the book what you want it to be; you have to read it in accord with what the book tells you it is, according to what it claims itself to be.
So, what does the Bible claim for itself? What kind of book does the Bible tell us that it is? Well, we don’t have time to give a full-defense of a doctrine of Scripture, but I’ll point us to one (familiar) text. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
Thus, the Scripture says of itself that it is “breathed out by God.” That is to say, Scripture is the very words of God. Consequently, to paraphrase Warfield, “To say ‘the Bible says’ is to say ‘God says.’” And if it’s God’s very words, then we can say that it is authoritative, since God’s words are to be obeyed, that it is trustworthy and true, since God’s words are always right and true, and that it is infallible, since God is not able to make errors or mistakes. Consequently, we can say that Scripture claims for itself that it is God’s very words which are infallible, authoritative, trustworthy, and true.
And it’s important for us to recognize that this is the claim that the Scripture makes of itself. That is to say, it isn’t that any man studied this book and after a while said, “You know what, this may well be the very words of God.” Rather, it’s what the Bible claims for itself. Therefore, to come to the Bible and approach it as anything other than God’s very Word which is infallible, authoritative, trustworthy, and true is to approach it on terms contrary to the way it demands to be approached. The Bible simply doesn’t invite the reader to come and critique it, question whether it is true, or wonder whether it must be obeyed. It invites the reader to come and submit to it. That is our aim this semester.
That’s essential number one, and the second is like it:
We must understand that God’s revelation in the Scripture is progressive
Let me explain what I mean by this. The Bible didn’t one day just fall out of the sky in its completed form. Therefore, the Bible isn’t like an encyclopedia where you consult it as a reference work, take some statement found in it, and draw a conclusion. That’s how an encyclopedia works. You can open an encyclopedia, read that it says something like, “People’s brain develops most before the third year of life” or something like that, and say, “Okay. Write that down. That’s true, accurate, and reliable.
But the Bible isn’t an encyclopedia, a collection of facts, or a report on subject matters. The Bible actually tells a story that unfolds we read it. Instead of thinking of an encyclopedia, the Bible is more like a mystery novel. It’s like a mystery novel in two ways. First, it’s like a mystery novel in that you’ve got to keep in mind where you are in the midst of the story when you’re reading it. Let’s say, for example, that in our mystery novel, it concludes with the surprising ending that Jimmy the neighbor was a serial killer, and that comes out in chapter ten. Well, if you open the book in chapter four and see a scene where they’re giving Jimmy some community service award for doing good in the neighborhood, then you may be startled and wrongly come to the conclusion that all the people in the book love murder, are thankful that Jimmy is a serial killer, and are honoring him for these horrific acts. But that’s not how you accurately read a mystery novel. Rather, you first take note of where you are in the story. And when you open to chapter four and see this scene you need to remind yourself, “They don’t yet know the surprise the Jimmy is a killer. That detail won’t come to light for another six chapters.” Knowing where you are in the story keeps you from drawing incorrect conclusions about what’s going on.
And the Bible tells a story. It tells a unified story. It tells a story that progressively unfolds as you read it. I believe this is one of the most amazing aspects of the Bible. It was written over hundreds of years by many different authors, and it tells us one coherent story. It’s a story that begins with creation and ends with a new creation. I like it illustrate it by noting the four pivotal moments (creation—fall—redemption—new creation) in the Bible’s storyline as follows:
This means that at any point in our Bible reading, we have to ask where we are in this story. What events have yet to happen in the story? What events have already happened in the story? These are crucial questions.
For example, let’s say you open your Bible to Genesis 1:31 and read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Now, “everything that he had made” included humanity. So, if we’re doing our doctrine of humanity, we could say that mankind is by nature good. In fact, he is very good. But the problem with that, of course, is that in Genesis 1:31, we’re at a point in the storyline that’s before the fall, and the reality is that after the fall the Bible gives us a description of mankind that is quite different from Genesis 1:31, as we see, for example, in Romans 3:9-20.
That, of course, is an easy example. But it’s not always this easy. Pentecostals, for example, have developed an entire theology of the baptism of the Holy Spirit by saying that the disciples were believers, but they were powerless and without the Spirit. Then, the Lord baptized them with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke in tongues, and they demonstrated much greater boldness and power after that point. Therefore, they would argue, if you and I are believers but feel powerless and wish we had greater boldness, then we need to seek and pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit so that we can have our own “Pentecostal” experience and receive the Holy Spirit. The problem with that, however, is that if you read Romans 8:9, Paul tells us that if someone does not have the Spirit, he or she is not a believer. This means that we need to pause and think about where we are in the Bible’s storyline. For example, we can divide out biblical history in this way:
Pre-Pentecost - Only a select few believers have the Spirit
Pentecost - Holy Spirit is poured out on believers
Post-Pentecost - All believers have the Holy Spirit
So, you have to make sure you know where you are in the Bible’s storyline as you read the Bible, just as you need to know where you are in the Bible’s storyline when you’re reading Genesis 1 and drawing some conclusions on the nature of mankind.
Therefore, the reason the disciples could be followers of Christ, even believing he is who he said he was and that he did indeed die and was raised from the dead and yet not have the Spirit is because they lived in the time before Pentecost. The disciples lived at a unique point in the unfolding of God’s redemptive work. Just as there can be no one living today who can legitimately wait for the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to take place since it has already taken place, nor can there be any believer today who is legitimately waiting for the coming of the Spirit since he has already come at Pentecost. Therefore, in the sense of replaying redemptive history, Pentecost is not repeatable, and we do not need it to be repeated. We no longer live in a day when individuals can believe in Christ and yet still need to receive the Spirit. Rather, we live in a day in which Paul can write, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). To be a believer is to have received the Spirit. In fact, if you do not have the Spirit, according to Paul, you are not a powerless believer in need of greater power, you are an unregenerate unbeliever in need of salvation.i
But this brings us back to our need to study this topic of the Spirit, the Church, and Last Things. And two weeks from now we’re going to dive into the issue of spiritual gifts, where I’m going to spend three weeks looking at if the miraculous gifts in Scripture continue in our day and what do we do with that. Thanks for being here this morning.
1Now, with that said, we can also see that even though the disciples are baptized with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, it appears that after Pentecost they are repeatedly filled with the Spirit. So, we read that on the day of Pentecost they “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), however, only two chapters later we read that as the disciples pray, asking God to grant them boldness and power to speak the gospel, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). It appears then that there is an element in the events of Pentecost that is indeed repeatable, namely, being filled with the Spirit. And really, basically everyone I’ve read on this topic, whether Sinclair Ferguson, D. A. Carson, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, or Iain Murray, they’re all saying that though Pentecost need not be repeated, believers should pray for repeated fillings of the Holy Spirit. See, for example: Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 79-92; D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 137-88; J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984); Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 763-787; Iain Murray, Pentecost – Today?: The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 1998), 23.