The Bible and Culture

It all began 106 years ago in Kansas when a woman broke out of normal speech into glossolalia. It was but a foreshadowing of a mighty wave of the Spirit which has still not crested as it has gathered momentum around the world. I was in Moscow to teach and my hosts asked me if I wanted to go to the big joint worship service in the old Soviet Convention Center. I said of course. I was not expecting what I experienced. Russia is dominated by two major church groups– the Orthodox Church of course which is the ‘official’ church of Russia, and all those Baptists of various sorts. But without question a group on the rise is the Pentecostals of various sorts. What I experienced was vigorous heart-stopping non-stop singing by hundreds of young people in choirs and in the stands, powerful testimonies, and then, unfortunately ‘prosperity Gospel’ preaching. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. I was kind of hoping the Russian Pentecostals wouldn’t be making some of the same mistakes of some American ones. But this phenomenon is in fact sweeping around the globe. I was in Singapore last May, before that in South Africa, before that in Austrailia, and I could go on. It’s almost everywhere. In fact, it is the fastest growing religious phenomena in South America as well. Much of the two-thirds world is riding the crest of this wave. So we ought to pay attention, and ask what is God doing?

Though I have been a life long Methodist, for most of my adult life I have also been very involved in the life of the Spirit. This goes back to attending Gordon Fee’s Bible study in his home with my wife to be in 1975 where I first heard speaking in tongues. Then there was the day I was at a healing and exorcism service in Tremont Temple in Boston and the next thing I knew, I was speaking in tongues. I need to tell you while of course there are always counterfeits when it comes to spiritual gifts, the genuine experience is simply one that comes unbidden and sweeps over you. Like grits on a southern breakfast plate, it just comes. And while you can stop it, its a pretty overwhelming experience. You don’t have to be in an emotional state for it to happen. You don’t have to be revved up by the praise band. You don’t have to be praying for it— it just comes. And why should this surprise us. The Holy Spirit is so much more powerful than we are and our little wills, and the Spirit does not want to be quenched by us as Paul reminds the Thessalonians in 1 Thess. 5.

And one of the things the Spirit does is break down barriers that humans build up, just like at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. Pentecostal services not only minister to the down and out, but also the up and in. They are often racially inclusive services. You will have men preachers, women preachers, and children preachers. And sometimes the best ones are the children– its amazing what happens when children are full of the Holy Spirit. In November 2005 I was asked to come to Valley Forge and preach at an Assemblies Church. I have never seen such a clearly inclusive service as this. It was a congregation which met in the local high school to save money for other ministry ventures. The composition of the congregation was about 40% white, another 25% black, 25% Hispanic or Oriental, and then another 5% of other sorts of folks, all praising the Lord in a mighty way. They also expected a 40 minute sermon– I just smiled and said “No problem”. That’s one thing about a Pentecostal service– its unlikely to start or finish at a preordained moment. There’s a general starting time, but it keeps going as the Spirit leads.

Now of course lots of folks are scared of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, there are whole denominations who try to domesticate and keep the Spirit within specific bounds. I ought to know. I’m part of such a denomination that used to be mostly like that, and still is to some extent. When I was ordained in the 1970s I was sent to the conference counselor before ordination. They closed the door, turned on the banks of cassette recorders and proceeded to ask me some questions: 1) did I believe in a personal Devil— yep I said; 2) well did I believe in demons and exorcisms?– yep I said, its in the Book; 3) did I believe in charismatic gifts– yep I said; 4) did I believe in speaking in tongues– yep I said, been there done that; 5) what did I think of ordination– I respect it but church ordination is just a public confirmation and recognition of the gifts God has given me. He’s the one who anointed and appointed me in the first place. It kind of went like that. Thereafter they delayed my ordination for a year. I guess I was seen as too hot to handle.

Now you may well run into cessationists, in fact you may be part of such a church. The cessationists argue that God ran out of juice. He used to give people these sorts of gifts in the apostolic age, but once that era was over, and once the canon showed up, such extraordinary spiritual gifts ceased. The chief proof text for this view is, believe it or not, 1 Cor. 13.8-12 which reads “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies they will cease; where there are tongues they will be stilled; where there is knowledge it will pass away. For we know in part and prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I put childish ways behind me.” Of course that is not all this paragraph says. It goes on to say ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see to face to face.”

What is Paul talking about? When will we see face to face, and know as we are known? Well for sure it was not when the second century A.D. began, nor when the Scriptures were canonized in the fourth century. The cessationists have tended to argue: 1) the word ‘perfection’ refers to the coming of the canon. When the NT showed up we didn’t need these extraordinary spiritual gifts any more. Of course the major problem with that exegesis is that no one in Corinth in the A.D. 50s could possibly have understood Paul to mean ‘the NT canon’ by the word ‘perfection’. And in fact this is not what Paul meant– he’s referring to the eschaton when we see Jesus face to face, when perfection really comes in the person of the Lord, when we finally know Him as we are known. Then indeed we will not need prophecy or tongues, and then indeed our knowledge will cease to be partial. Indeed, then faith will become sight, and hope will be realized, and love will be perfected and go on. There is no chance that the word ‘perfection’ means the canon here. The context is eschatological, and Paul is looking forward to what will be the case when Jesus returns. This is so very clear in 1 Cor. 15, the resurrection chapter, as well.

2) And of course if you are a student of Church History you know perfectly well the Holy Spirit has not run out of unction to function. Those spiritual gifts have been being poured out in every century since the second century until now. In America of course the Azuza Street Revival in 1905 was a landmark event for Pentecostals. Their growth has been pretty steady since then. We might as well just accept it and come to grips with it, even if its not our cup of tea.

Now like any lay led (or for that matter clergy led) spiritual movement there are some theological problems with the way the Bible is read in this tradition. The top five mistakes are as follows: 1) Acts 2 is not about glossolalia– its about the miraculous giving of the ability to suddenly speak in these various foreign languages; 2) Acts 2 is also not about a post-conversion experience of being baptized in the Spirit. Acts 2 is about the birthday of the church. One should not see John 20 and the upper room “receive the Holy Spirit” story as a preliminary reception of the Spirit. The story is about a prophetic sign reassuring the disciples that the Spirit would soon come on them once Jesus went away (remembering that Jn. 13-17 s
ays that Jesus must first go away back to heaven before the Spirit could be sent); 3) speaking in tongues is not the initial evidence that one has the Holy Spirit in everyone’s life. As the end of 1 Cor. 12 makes evident, not all born again Spirit filled Christians speak in tongues. That gift is simply not given to everyone, and anyway its the Spirit who decides who gets what gift; 4) the beginning of 1 Cor. 12 makes clear that being baptized by one Spirit into one body is language referring to the point of conversion and becoming part of the body of Christ, not some post-conversion experience. The NT certainly doesn’t rule out post-conversion dramatic experiences in the Spirit, but they do not involve ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ nor the reception of ‘more of the Spirit’ Why? Because 5) the Holy Spirit is a person, not a mere power or force. You can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in your life than you can be a little bit pregnant. The Spirit is a living being living within you, and while that Spirit can get hold of more aspects of your life and personality once he is in your life, you get the whole presence of the person of the Spirit in your life when he first enters your life at conversion. Period. Thus while we can talk about the second, third, fourth, or however many works of grace or blessings after conversion, these are works in the Spirit, not receptions of more of the Spirit.

I could go on, but here I would encourage you to read the encouraging story of a small Pentecostal Church made up mostly of ex-Dominican Republic residents who now live in New York City. The NY Times has give us two clear and powerful stories about their life and ministry to the least, last, and lost in NY. Here are the links–


These stories are well worth the read, as you will learn something about storefront churches, and also about the life of Pentecostals. It is interesting that public figures as divergent as Sen. John Ashcroft and Rev. Al Sharpton are Pentecostal ministers. The Pentecostal phenomena crosses all sorts of cultural lines. So my question for you is— What is the Holy Spirit doing in your life? Have you listened to the exhortation in 1 Thess. 5.19 not to put out the Spirit’s fire or treat prophecies with contempt? How about the one in Ephes.5.18 to be filled in the Spirit speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? Are you making a joyful noise unto the Lord? I hope so. If not, what are you waiting for?

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