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Holy Spirit

The similarity between the Holy Spirit and the wind or breath and air is so close that you could almost say that it is not a simile or a metaphor but it’s a definition.  In fact it’s his name.  Most of us know more Greek than we realize.  I think almost as many words come from the Greek as from the Latin, so we are using them all the time.  One of them is the word for spirit, whether mine or yours or the Holy Spirit, and that is pneuma.  Everywhere in the New Testament where you read about spirit, whether it is what Jesus gave up to God on the cross or the Holy Spirit that came from heaven.  Of course we use it in pneumonia, or pneumatic tools and so on.  Jesus naturally in talking to Nicodemus made use of that figure in John 3 when he says, “You must be born of the Spirit.”  And this is fulfilled beautifully in Acts 2 on Pentecost.

The words wind and breath and air are virtually synonymous.  Sixteen of our high school boys took part in a track meet and talking about their breath they would say, “I’m just winded.”  Or, “I got my second wind.” Or we use the expression, “I got the wind knocked out of me.”  And there was a great amount of wind that was at the track meet that had to be accounted for or reckoned with.  Records can not be established if there is a greater wind velocity than this or that.  But as I started to say, if there is no wind we don’t say that, we say, “there was not a breath of air.”  So there you have all three words, which are virtually interchangeable.  And all three of them are used to describe the Holy Spirit.  There is bound to be some overlapping as we look at these three words, much like ice can become water and can vaporize and become steam.  Just like that is often used as a symbol of the trinity, so too with the Holy Spirit as a symbol of himself, so He is air and wind and breath all at the same time.

Let’s look at the Holy Spirit first as air.  Three characteristics:  It is invisible, and it’s universal – omnipresent if you want to use that term – and it is essential.  And there you have three perfect descriptions of the Holy Spirit who is the breath or the air of God.  With regards to his invisibility, here is something, air now, which is very real. It is one of the most real phenomena in the world.  Yet no one has ever seen it.  We are sitting in the midst of it like a giant ocean but no one has ever seen it, not even with electronic microscopes.  It is just invisible, and isn’t that a perfect picture of the Holy Spirit?  No one will ever see it, at least with physical eyes, and yet we know it exists.  One of the first experiments we had in physics in high school was to weigh air and we had to laugh thinking that air had no weight.  But we found out by weighing flasks that had a vacuum with those that were pressurized that air had real weight.  So here we sit in this ocean of air, we sleep in it, we work in it.  We got to, and how we take it for granted, the way we do God, His Holy Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our very being.

He is also universal.  Water is found in most parts of the earth, but in some parts of the world it is almost nonexistent like the Sahara desert.  Air on the other hand is virtually everywhere.  One couldn’t venture into areas without air unless they had some sort of artificial air. Houdini used to allow himself to buried and through control of his respiration would be able to eventually escape unharmed.  There is air in water.  Fish through their use of gills can extract the air out of the water.  And although water is impressive in its scope with oceans that extend from California to China, it is nothing compared to the universality, the homogeneity, the commonness of air.   So that the air we are “swimming in” today may be half was across the country in a matter of hours and in weeks may be in China.  It is just one, singular.  We demonstrate the unity of the human race by the fact that we are of one blood.  Paul says to the Greeks who were rather snobbish, “God has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.”  So we can transfuse blood from one person to another and yet there are different types of blood.  But in contrast to that, we all breathe the same air.  The same oxygen goes into our blood.  So it is a perfect picture of the omnipresence of God.  Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go apart from your Spirit.  Where can I go where you are not found?”   We can go without bread and water, which Jesus compared himself to, but we can not go 5 minutes without air.  Is it any wonder that Jesus to Nicodemus talked about his spirit, the Holy Spirit, as air.  It is universal, indispensable and absolutely essential.  And it is free, available, unlike water.  I wonder if there isn’t poetic appropriateness in this age of culture pollution if it isn’t sort of a scientific nicety that our air is polluted, contaminated, irreversibly.  And there is something very appropriate about the statement in scripture, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

Air in motion is first of all a breath like what we breathe, take in. And here we take in this wonderful ocean of God’s creation that he brought into being in paradise. Isn’t that thrilling too? It’s always new yet eternal. Changing form and reusable, same air as Adam breathed, you might say.  Now we personalize it, individualize it and call it breath.  That’s called God’s breath; the Holy Spirit becomes part of our being, a very part of us.  You don’t have to be a doctor to know that what you breathe in is passed from the lungs to the blood and taken to all the various cells in the body.  Now the amazing thing is that the air all around us wants to get into our lungs.  There is almost something alive about air.  It wants to get into our lungs and we have to repel it, keep it out.  I’m over simplifying now but one of the reasons why we can go to sleep at night and not worry about having to breathe is that it is instinctive to expel air. But it is an impulse of nature to fill our lungs.  Nature abhors a vacuum and so there is a space, a cavity in our body and air rushes in.  Then instinct takes over and we expel it but right away that vacuum is created and in rushes the air.  There is pressure in the world, pressure around us.  The air presses to get in, to be used.  You know why people are lost without the gospel, who are lost for lack of oxygen, for spiritual oxygen now, God’s breath, that He breathed into man in paradise, that he chose to reject? You know why people die?   It is because they hold their breath. They resist the Holy Spirit.  It is as simple as that.  He yearns after all men.  Genesis says His spirit is jealous of us, longs to envelop us, as He does, possess us and indwell us.  We got to pinch our noses and that is why Jesus said in John 16 that when the Holy Spirit is come he will convict the world of judgement.  Why? Because they are such bad people? Walking corpses, because they are spiritually dead? No. It is because they believe not in me, they don’t breathe.  They hold their breath.  They would rather smell the decaying offal of the world.

The wonderful thing is is that we can pass on that breath.  Or really prompt others to breathe since everyone has to do their own breathing.  We can be the means of communicating the very breath of God. In John 20, the first day of the week or actually the new creation, when things first started again as a counterpart to Genesis, Jesus first appeared to his disciples who were gathered together.  And after finishing saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you,” he breathed on them.  Didn’t just raise his hands over them, or body to body contact.  He wanted to indwell them, his very breath to possess them. “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.”  We have all heard of artificial respiration but do you know it is relatively modern?  When I was a boy I was in a club much like the cub scouts and we practiced the Red Cross scheme of aiding a drowning victim with them face down and straddling their back with compresses, “Out goes the water, in goes the air,” being the rhythm.  But now that is obsolete and we have improved upon it.  Even the home-made, rule-of-thumb respiration is mouth-to-mouth.  And what is one to say of inhalation therapy that has revolutionized modern medicine. We tend to think of advances in medicine in regards to surgeries or antibiotics or cancer treatments, vaccines, and so on.  But a lot of credit in surgery belongs to inhalation therapy.  Many of us wouldn’t be here without that oxygen that man has learned to can, so to speak.  And so when Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit,” he was giving them artificial respiration and they would in turn pass it on to others.

This can become power, and that is air or breath in motion.  We know that hot air rises and more recently we have become aware of the movement of air on temperature.  We have known for sometime how humidity can affect the feel of a given temperature, but now we know that the affect of air movement, which we call the wind chill in winter, can have just as much effect if not more on our comfort.  So the movement of air or breath has so much to do with our well being and that is true in the spiritual realm as well.  One of our greatest sources of energy is just this thing of moving air.  I’m thinking of the windmills that dot the landscape in the Netherlands, and it isn’t just that they are quaint and picturesque but they are kept there despite the amount of land that they occupy or require.  They are somewhat crude compared to our American windmills, but they persist in using them not because of sake of tradition but rather because every year they reclaim acres and acres of land for this nation.  Holland is growing because of the windmill.  They move oceans of water through the use of the air.  Farmers get energy to light their humble cottages because of these devices. There is always ongoing studies to figure out better ways to harness moving air, which is wind, of course.  Or air brakes that stop mile long trains just by the application of air.

Now then, applying it to the Holy Spirit who is air in motion, who is breath, who is wind – the only way in which we can be recipients of that power is to be in a right relationship to Him. You have to be in the center of God’s will, or everything that I have said about life, movement and energy and power is moot.  We’re all aware that airplanes’ flight patterns for landing change on account of the wind.  Children flying kites can stand in one direction one day and a different direction the next to get their kites in the air, depending on the wind.  Now, how often are you and I powerless, bucking the wind or rowing upstream to change the figure, just because we are not moving along with the Holy Spirit, capitalizing on His power.  That’s what Jesus was talking about when he was talking to Paul, [sic] “Saul, you are a man of motion, energy and power but you are kicking against the bricks. You should be going along with me. We are at a standstill so to speak, cancelling each other out. You are fighting my work.  Why do you persecute me?”  And then we read this pretty expression “that he who had (been) breathing out threatening” – I think it is very deliberate that the Holy Spirit who inbreathes the Bible use that expression – “breathing out threatening” – like a dragon sort of smoke and fire – “began to breathe out blessings.”

Well one form that we can exert this power, that we can share this life that we have is through prayer.  Prayer is the Christian’s breath, his native air.  And by means that we can reach around the world. We would never think of someone taking down a windmill because he didn’t have enough air to make more than one of them run.  Air is free.  You can have as many windmills as you want.  That is what the Bible means when it says, “Pray without ceasing.”  Why settle for 5 minutes in the morning or 5 minutes at night, if that.  We should always be praying.  It is our very breath.  Whoever thought of just breathing for a little while, getting hyperoxygentated, then rushing to school and holding their breath the rest of the day.  Breathe constantly.  Pray without ceasing.  And you can reach out that little windmill of yours and because you are facing the Lord, you are in tune with His power, you can change people behind the Iron Curtain and behind the Bamboo Curtain that you will never see until glory.  Artificial respiration.  Another form of this is the Word of God, which is the power of God unto salvation.  Why does this book change lives, change people, unlike self-help books that may change your thinking or lifestyle?  Books about racism may change your whole attitude towards others but doesn’t change you into those other races. What’s the difference between the Bible and other books?  The Bible is God breathed, it’s in-spired.  And so when the Gideons are distributing their books into the motels they are breathing out the gift of life.  They are a vehicle, bottled oxygen, containing God and passing it on to others.  It is said that one Bible in a motel room can reach 3000 people.  What power we possess.  We are the spiritual mid-wives for the world.  I say again, everyone has to do their own breathing.  I wish we could breath for others.  We are the spiritual obstetricians that make them spark that first breath, makes them gasp for life.  So say, “Lord,” like Saul, “what would you have me do?”  We are the nursery for the new humanity.  What an honor, what a job.  So we ought to have for our first prayer be the hymn, “Breathe on me breath of God, ’til I am wholly thine, ’til all this earthly part of me, glows with Thy power divine.  Breathe on me breath of God, so shall I never die, but live with Thee the perfect life of Thine eternity.”

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Prayer: Power and Practice

Books that are entitled “How to do this…” and “How to do that…” are legion now days. And we all need, when it comes to prayer, some down to earth common sensical suggestions. More than one person has said to me, “I want to, I know I should, I’d like to, how do I go about it?”  And it made me think of what characterizes me and every Christian, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

In light of that lets motivate ourselves by seeing the power of prayer.  It changes things and changes us.  You don’t have to take your choice, you can have both. It isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.  You can have your cake and eat it too.  But before we go any further it must be said that we should not think of prayer primarily as getting things, although that is its basic meaning.  It is a petition.  It is an important part of prayer but not the exclusive part.  I believe that we Calvinists have the biggest problem with this notion or question, “Does prayer change things?”  Maybe that is why we are not necessarily noted for prayer.  We tend to think that it has all been predetermined long ago, so what is the sense of praying about it?  And yet I think that even as Calvinists in our heart-of-hearts we think it must or why would we spontaneously in times of trouble, sickness or death, unemployment, national emergencies, and so on just leap to prayer?   We have all heard the expression, “there are no atheists in foxholes,”  and it is all because of the belief that prayer changes things.

Well how does it?  How can it?  Doesn’t God run the show?  In Philippians we see that God uses those prayers.  A sovereign, independent God is pleased to use those prayers.  For example, God doesn’t need the sun to make the world go round. He doesn’t need the sun to make the world light.  There seems that there was some sort of light before the 4th day when God made the sun appear.  But He is pleased to give us ultraviolet light, to give us energy,  to make plants grow. To use another illustration, God didn’t have to arrange it to have man himself populate the world.  He could have periodically created children, much like people bring foster kids into their home.  He made the angels after all separately.  So, in short, God doesn’t do anything in this world that He isn’t asked to.  Take, for example, this matter of weather. It is one of if not the primary aspect of our existence. It regulates our health, our activity, our well being, our clothing, what we eat and where we eat, whether indoors or outdoors.  Every newspaper carries a weather prediction, we listen to it on the news, our lives sort of revolve around the weather.  And God says in James that Elijah was a man like us and he prayed and it didn’t rain and then he prayed again and it did rain.  “The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective.”  Prayer changes things.  And that applies to forgiveness too.  The Bible says that “whatsoever you shall bind in earth [by your prayers or failure to pray] shall be bound in heaven (or loosed).”  And this applies not only to weather and to sin, but to everything.  “More things are wrought by prayer,” says Tennyson, “then the world has ever dreamed of.”  He was putting it mildly.

But more important, prayer changes us.  I’m sure that we would all agree that that is more important than weather.  Who cares if you die of exposure if in the process of life you become more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ, which is our whole reason for existence, our purpose in being Christians.  Prayer changes us, and it works.  Think of the most pious, devout people you know, the kind of a Christian you’d like to be and could be, and should be. I’m not thinking of monk-type people here, but people that are down to earth, practical. Almost invariably you will find that they are people of prayer.  Not exclusively, I said they were practical.  They put their money where their mouth is, they roll up their sleeves and implement what they asked God to do.  Prayer is not a cop-out for work.  The same James that says [sic] “You got faith? I’ll show you I got faith by my works.”  Prayer is work.  Faith without works is dead, and works without prayer is deader yet.  One of the greatest evidences of spiritual growth, as a pastor of a congregation, is in this very area.  I keep a list of things that we have prayed about that have come to pass, not only locally but around the world.

Now to the practice of prayer.  First there is what the Bible refers to as “praying without ceasing.”  Jesus said people ought to pray and not stop.  This characterized Nehemiah, Ezra and many others.  It marked them, and marked Jesus.  It marks every outstanding Christian.  “Prayer is the Christian’s very breath, the believers native air, his watchword at the gates of death.” He enters heaven with prayer.  He is praying all the time, not just on his deathbed.  That’s his lifestyle. One of its finest forms is to pray, in those situations when you can do it, is to pray aloud. It isn’t necessary but it is good self discipline.  It makes the angels sing and it scares satan.  Ask God to make you His instrument, His secretary, to give you things to pray about on the basis of which He can work.  At the end of Job, after this tremendous ordeal, God has compassion for his friends, who meant well but missed the point.  God said to Job, “Pray for your friends and I’ll bless them.”  You first pray for them so I can bless them.

So that is private or personal prayer, but one is not going to pray without ceasing unless he has stated seasons. Again, all the men and women of God who accomplished great things had a quiet time.  I’m not saying how long or how often, but it was systematic, it was regular. Now I know that we are all busy, but isn’t that funny, when you think about it, because everybody that has ever walked the earth has had a 24 hour day, no more or less. And yet we holler about being so busy, but ironically, there is no generation, at least theoretically, that should have more leisure. But the trouble is that given enough time you are going to fill it. Schedule a meeting for 2 hours and it is likely that you are going to fill it even if the agenda could have been done in half that time.  That’s the law of life. So it is not a matter of finding time, it’s simply taking time.  It is there if you want to have it. It all depends upon your priorities.

Just a thought about combined or joint prayer:  What place does that play in the Christian’s prayer life?  People say “I can pray at home,” and that is true and the same excuse is given for not going to church.  So what is the value of gathering together to pray?  It is not a caucus where we gather together to pressure God. And it isn’t to psych ourselves up, but it is the way in which we enrich one another’s prayers, where we learn from each other how to pray and what to pray for.  That’s the great virtue of prayers with the family at home, whether at meal times or before bed.  “Unless you become like a child, you will not enter the kingdom.”  Unless you pray like them.  This is a place where every member of the family is equally tall. This prayer enriches.  And it also purifies our prayers.  We all make mistakes, such as our content (praying for the wrong things), our manner (irreverence), our formulation or wrong words (trying to impress God with big theological terms); these can all be corrected when we pray with someone else.  When we pray with others we tend to be more sincere. That’s likely what Jesus had in mind when he said if two of you should agree, touching anything, it should be touching my Father who is in heaven.  It is pretty hard for two people to pray improperly.

Well, it still isn’t easy which makes me convinced that it is important.  Don’t you find that is the way of most things in secular life that the most important things are the hardest to do?  And the way to learn it is just to do it.  It doesn’t come easy to anybody, but by doing you become skilled.  That’s what prayer is, not talking about it, thinking about it, reading about it.  Much like the way if one uses the word “doctor” they typically think about a medical doctor, someone who is “practicing”.  Someone who is doing something.  And that is how you learn to pray, by the doing.

And so, “Praying as one who long has prayed and yet no answer heard, Have you been sometimes half afraid God would not keep his word? Seems prayer to fall on deafened ears, does heaven seem blind and dumb?  Believe, believe prayer is heard, the answer in time will come.  God does not mock believing prayer.  You shall not go unfed.  He gives no serpent for a fish, nor gives He stones for bread.  Say not ‘The promise is not mine, God did not hear me pray.  I prayed, I trusted full but bars of brass have blocked the way.’  God heard thee, he hath not forgot.  Faith will at length prevail. Yea, know it.  Not the smallest word all his truth shall fail.  For if you truly have believed, not vain has been thy prayer, as God is true, thy hope shall come, sometime, some way, some where.”

Discipleship – Shining in the Dark

Paul:  The Inestimable Value of One Disciple (Acts 27)

Some think faith is a private matter, and that one person’s belief is of no consequence to others.  Hardly could one be more mistaken.  Where we are strong and where we are weak matters tremendously to others.  We all affect society for better or for worse.  What an awesome responsibility!

Paul in the storm is a case in point.  (Contrast Paul and Jonah, both in a storm, and on the very same sea.)  Many things stand out in this account.  Notice the ignorance and helplessness of the experts.  That same frustration is found in our experts in diplomacy, education, legislation and adjudication today.  Notice the calm and poise of the man who trusted God.  Christians can still live in peace and maintain perspectives in our own chaotic times.  Apart from God people are in the depths of depression.  But when one can say: “The God I serve, and whose I am, has appeared to me” the invitation to be of good cheer still sounds firm and valid.

The Sense of Belonging

Paul always saw himself as belonging to God in Christ.  He called himself the slave of Christ.  He has been bought by the blood, and is not his own ever again.  Then he can no longer live for himself, cannot please himself, cannot conserve himself.  This “belonging” concept explains a great deal in Paul.  How conscious are we of it?  And of its implications for our life and character?

This “belonging” while it is constraining, is also our emancipation from the slavery to sin, fear, self-destruction and death.  It is not that now we are no longer our own, since we belong to Christ.  We were not our own before belonging to Christ either.  What happens in our redemption is that we have a change of masters.  And this opens the door to the best of all lives.  No life is better than the Master it serves.  The best of lives is not attainable under the worst of masters.  It is when we are freed from the domination of sin and evil that we can use the energies and time for godliness and its attendant good, rather than for evil and its inevitable misery.  Happiness is in direct ration to the degree of servitude to Christ. Our value as persons in society is measured by the level of our devotion to the will of Christ.

The Portrait of a Disciple in Society

Faith focused upon the right object.  Paul zeroed in on God.  What else was there to trust?  The ship?  It was breaking apart.  The sailors?  They were going to kill everyone.  The soldiers?  They were going to kill everyone.  The two captains?  They had not the slightest idea of what to do.  One sure, basic hope remained:  GOD.  So today we should know that we have no hope in mankind, nor in education, the military, politics or finances.  All of these have been tried and have failed.  Far from being the cure of our problems, they are the chief causes.  The message of the disciple is: “Behold your God!”

Genuine concern for others.  Contrast this with Johah!  “God has granted….” That means Paul had been praying for them.  What a ministry!  Intercessory prayer is one of the noblest forms of prayer.  Faith makes Christians concerned for society.

An ear for the Message of God.  We sometimes think:  “I don’t know what to say.”  It took even Paul two weeks of waiting for God to give him the words before he dared to speak.  Beware of rushing into speech simply because you feel you have the duty of witnessing.  Talk to God about people before talking to people about God.

A clear view of several things in God.  God is a hearer of prayer.  God is full of mercy.  God is adequate for any situation.  God is concerned for suffering mankind.  Remember Nineveh.  And the word of Jesus: “I have compassion on the multitude…”

Willingness to be involved in society’s problems.  We are part of our world and cannot sit idly by  when the world is in trouble while we have resources and insights and a message that can benefit others.  We need Christians in politics, teaching, business, courts, the media…..claiming every aspect of life for Christ.  A disciple is a presence. Something emanates from a disciple, just by virtue of his being there as a Chrsitian living the best of all lives amongst people whose lives are chaos.

A disciple cannot leave it to others who have not his insights and witness.  There were 2 captains on that ship.  Paul might have felt the situation was their problem, and their responsibility.  But they were helpless.  They had authority, but no insight.  There were 275 soldiers and sailors there.  But they were useless.  They had training, but could not cope.  One man of impeccable character, devoted to God, listening to God, was worth more than all of them together because he believed God and would become involved.

The Effect of Witness upon Others

They saw their first ray of hope and cheer.  This is always the effect when a disciple with the 5 characteristics listed above, involves himself or herself in society’s needs.  When the Church is Church.  When a Christian is a Christian.  The world is crying:  “Is there any good word in this hurting, bleeding world?”   And the Church cries back:  “Yes there is! Turn to God in Christ.”  But it takes strong disciples and  a faithful Church to say that.

“Be of good cheer” people say.  But we’d better have a very good basis on which to say it.  Maybe people can’t be of good cheer.  In this kind of world why should they be of good cheer?  The world is in no mood for cheap talk.  There are already too many people “…speaking pious platitudes in stained glass attitudes…”   There must be substance in our testimony.  And we have to be people of joy and peace ourselves.  We can’t speak of hope unless we are full of it.  The same is true if we wish to speak of joy and peace.  Our witness is valid and viable only if we ourselves are genuine and authentic disciples.

Our times for faith, and action based upon faith.  If we fail here we, and our society, have lost the last vestige of hope for humankind.  Then there is no more meaning to life, no more reason for living.  It’s faith that is the victory and that overcomes the world, and it is by faith that everything good becomes possible.  For faith leans hard upon God and turns everything over to him.  That is the true victory.  That is what discipleship is all about.  That opens the door to the best of all lives.

From Paul’s life we learn there may well be storms in life.  The best of all lives is not always spent on quiet seas.  Christ never promised it would be easy, but he did say it would be blessed, and that’s what counts.  That’s what makes it all worthwhile.  That’s the foretaste of glory.

 

Miracles (Part I)

The inspiration (infallibility) of Scripture and our preaching from it have often been discredited by attacks upon the miracles reported in the Bible, whether performed by Christ or occurring upon such (Old Testament) people as Jonah.  (This subject can include too such supernatural phenomena as the Flood and Noah’s ark.)

This is not the place to explore that big subject; books have been written on it, including C.S. Lewis’ Miracles, which ably defend the traditional, orthodox acceptance of the reality, authenticity of miracles in Bible times and otherwise.  Suffice it to say, for our purposes here, that a “man of God’ should have no hesitation in preaching on a given miracle in Scripture (or Scripture at large) for fear his text is merely a legend, folk-tale, Jewish myth, etc.  (One wonders why those who think so, continue to use them for sermonizing!) And either the whole Bible is true or forget figuring out what is and what isn’t. If there was no Jonah, how can we be sure that there really was a Jesus Christ, who thought and taught that Jonah was real?

One reminder is in order; many preachers (and lay Christians) feel threatened if a given miracle in Scripture is explained naturally.  For example; the Jordan river has frequently in its long history been dammed up for a while when its tall, clay banks become undercut and crash into the gorge.  This could well indeed have happened at the time of Joshua’s crossing.  An earthquake may well have caused Jericho’s walls to fall.  A volcano of sorts might have inundated Sodom and Gomorrah.  And so on.  The miraculous element in all these is the fact that their occurrence was predicted; their timing was supernatural, God-controlled, like the strong east wind that blew all night on the
Red Sea before Israel crossed through it.  People used to laugh at the idea of Judgment’s trumpet being heard around the world, until radio was discovered (not invented!).  Or the possibility that at the Second Coming “every eye will see him” – because, (don’t you know) TV pictures do not follow the curvature of the earth in the fashion that radio waves do – but then along came satellites, technological “angels” indeed.  In short, generations to come, if Jesus tarries, will no doubt laugh at today’s sophisticated criticisms of Scripture the way we smile at medical and other “scientific” truths that were taught and believed as certain fact only fifty years ago!

What about miracles today?  Some Christians have sincerely thought that when Scripture was completed, miracles ceased as being unnecessary.  Others, correctly, point out that we may never “box” God in such fashion (where he does not explicitly reveal his will and plans), and we may not deny or doubt the possibility and reality of miracles today or at any time in history.  Regeneration is as much a miracle as raising a dead body to life.  And if it did not happen constantly, the physical birth of a human being from a virtual nothing would be called a miracle; a miracle, after all, is just an unusual, unfamiliar example of God at work.

Unfortunately, where our lives are actually full of “miracles”, such as hamburger turning into hair or even brain-cells, we Christians pretty much limit the word to physical healing, forgetting how He has altered weather in answer to prayer and caused “ravens” to bring us blessings from unexpected sources.

Suffice it to say that we may expect any kind of miracles, including healing, if God knows it is best for our eternal welfare.  (In another connection these notes point out that God allows the satanic angel of death to carry off some of his people “prematurely” (I Cor. 11:30), in order to save their souls.  And so, while it is perfectly true that it is God’s will, desire, even command that we be healthy and well (if we believed otherwise, we ought not to run off to the doctor and take medicine the moment we get sick), he certainly allows a lot of us to remain unwell, physically imperfect (just think of all the eye-glasses we wear!) in order that we may be whole, healed, in the fullest and finest sense of that word.  We may indeed pray for healing for ourselves or others, even in terminal illnesses (which often proved not to be terminal, just on account of answered prayer), but we must be sure we have God-honoring reasons for such a prayer.  That’s what it means to pray in Jesus’ name and according to God’s will.  “Failure” in such a case to receive what we want and asked for does not (repeat, not) imply lack of faith on our part; faith as such has very little to do with it, any more than the force with which a person presses a button determines whether a machine will start, a light go on.  Real faith is revealed by the fact that the person prayed with the conviction that God could if he would, and if he didn’t (exactly when and how we asked) it was still OK.  (Faithlessness says peevishly, when God does not jump like a magician’s assistant, “I didn’t think (or even), I knew “it ” wouldn’t work!  Now I’m through with that kind of a God.”  Faith says with Job, “If He kills me, I will still trust Him!”, and often ends up with greater faith and more possessions than he had before.

Seven Propositions regarding Faith, Prayer, Sickness and Health

1.  “Salvation” is much more than going to heaven upon death.  Our first prayer is, “If I should die before I wake.”  Most people keep this fire-escape concept as long as they live.  It is one reason why Christianity has not been accepted more by the American Indian, whose religion is a here-and-now matter.  Fact is, a religion that is little use for living is no good for dying.  Sickness and death must be prepared for, long ahead.  It is possible to work through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five steps years before the end of life.  Genuine 11th-hour conversions are few.

2.  Prayer is not just asking for things.  Most of our problems as to “answered” prayer, of “miracles”, is based upon a low view of prayer – something to be used only to get things.  Imagine thinking of marriage in terms of what you get out of it; marrying only because married people live longer, etc.  Here too is where the matter of “believing you shall receive” comes in.  The person with true belief does not stake his faith in God on whether he gets what he wants; he believes that God is perfectly capable of giving him anything, and faith is most shown by believing that whether he gets it or not, God is all-wise and all-loving.

3.  There are different kinds of faith.  It is obvious from Scripture and from experience that many non-Christians have their “prayers” answered.  Jesus fed 5,000 people, most of whom did not trust him for salvation.  (John 6:66)  Of 10 men healed of leprosy, only 1 even thanked Christ, which is about the present average of hospital bill-collections.  A chaplain, or any one ministering to the “spiritual” needs of a patient, does not fail his assignment by failing to convert a person, any more than Jesus failed with the many he helped, through faith, that were not converted.

4.  Almost everybody has faith of some sort, and it is not true that the more a person has faith in God, the less confidence he has in medicine, or vice versa.  The true Christian makes use of the God-given means for health that are available.  Cults like Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses display their heresy (not their “orthodoxy”) by neglect of medicine, aversion to vaccinations and blood-transfusions. Similarly, the person who professes great faith in medicine but none in God, often has faith only in himself.  Perfectly able to pay the big medical bills they were eager to incur, they are slow to pay the same, because of “faithlessness”.

5.  Faith believes in miracles.  Immediately we get into the problem of what really is a “miracle”.  But faith believes that God is able to raise even the dead, and should not hesitate to ask it because of “impossibility”.  Faith may decline to ask recovery from cancer, but not because it is “incurable”.

6.  Intercessory prayer is a much-overlooked aspect of this question.  Prayer on behalf of a Christian incapable of praying for himself is like the lungs doing the breathing for the whole body; on behalf of an unbeliever by a Christian (or even a non!) is like artificial respiration until he can carry on, on his own.

7.  Faith is an intangible thing.  We cannot ascertain the existence of the true versus the false, nor the degree of either, by such means as a thermometer.  Sickness has a way of exposing the sincerity of a person’s “faith”, and its amount, but many people have conned themselves and everybody else, to eternity itself.

The Church is in your House

In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul virtually says that a Christian marriage is a church.  Think what a crime this makes of divorce, or even the absence of love. In Philemon 1:2 Paul refers to the “the church that meets in your home.”  And in Colossians 4:15 he writes, “Greetings to Nympha and the church in her house.”  These two “churches” were part of the congregation of Christians in Colossae.  Nympha was a “single” believer, and a woman!

So, what is a church?  Not a building.  It is wrong to say so.  Even worse, to call it “God’s house”.  And it is not the clergy, the full-time officials or even the church officers.  It is not a denomination.  There is no such thing as a Christian Reformed Church.  There are churches.  And it is not even a single congregation.  This is a para-church organization, much like the World Home Bible League.  While it may be thought of as a congregation of individual believers, it really is of families.  So, the basic, continuing, “tangible” church is a family, a home.  This the first meaning of,  “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, (me)…”  The Old Testament model-church was a family, beginning with Abraham.  “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”  Circumcision, passover, almost all worship “services” were family affairs.  The Early Church was comprised of small groups of families, household churches.  The church as an organization has today “taken over” baptism, the Lord’s Supper, weddings, funerals, confirmation, even “prayer”, but ideally these are all familial.

What, then, is a family, a home? (And every one ideally belongs to at lest one in his/her lifetime, by very reason of birth.)  It is not a building, though realtors and others like to speak of a house as a “home”.  It is more than a number of individuals who live together, versus a commune, or “live-ins”, or even a man and woman and some children who occupy the same house.  (Schools, businesses, etc. like to speak of personnel as a “family”.  It is an organism (a “body”), an organization, with lines of authority.  Husbands are “heads” to their wives in the same way a physical head is to a body; equally important, mutually dependent (I Cor. 11:11,12).  He is not the boss, nor necessarily always the “leader”, any more than he is smarter, stronger, older.  He is the coordinator, organizer, unifier, order-keeper, representative, which means that sometimes as an individual he has to lay down his life for the sake of wife, and family, as Christ did.  (Husband and wife, being “one”, are together the “head”of the house; the wife alone, of course, when there is no husband.) The Bible says nothing about men per se being “over” women, such as in a business, school, hospital.  The Bible’s big and jealous concern is to the integrity of homes.

The primary purpose of a home is reproduction, not necessarily in the sense of multiplication, but surely replacement, perpetuation.  Other purposes are self-fulfillment of husband-wife and the advancement of the Kingdom of heaven (via sanctification of the partners, plus the creation of children and their salvation), but these goals are realized the most by parenting.  All perversions of marriage (homosexuality, “live-ins”, and even many divorces) are only the logical consequence of making “sex” its own excuse for being (and marriage); an end in itself instead of a means to a more wonderful one.  Nothing sanctifies a person (makes him/her more like God himself) than parenting (which is more than birthing.)  While parenting is the responsibility of both father and mother, from the nature of the case (birthing, nursing, nurturing) the wife’s primary responsibility is home-making (more than house-keeping), rather than wage-earning.

What makes a home a church?  Not Bible reading, “church going”, Christian service; all this can be done by individual believers.  It is united (the finest form of) prayer.  Jesus said, “If two of you agree in prayer, it will be done.”  What finer form of such agreement is there than between husband and wife, a family?  Unity is great; “one flesh”.  Needs and reasons for thanksgiving are the most mutual.  Understanding of fellow prayers is greatest.  Families that pray together…..are the church.  Here is where “singles” come in.  The congregation is their family.  By means of prayer-partners, prayer-groups.  Members of congregations should visit “singles” homes for prayer. (Ps 68:6, James 1:27)  Singles in turn can minster mightily to others. (Isa 54:1)   The first subject of family prayers should be for other members of the local congregation; systematically, specifically. (I Tim. 5:8)   It would spare congregational crisis praying (I Cor 11:29,30).  Congregational prayer can then address concerns of community, denomination, the “world”.  Pastoral prayer – Acts 6:4 – belongs in the home, not the pulpit.

Ask, Seek, Knock

Matthew 7:7  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Originally, we regard the verse as essentially stating the same thing three times, for emphasis if for no other reason.  This was quite common in the Hebrew culture and there are many examples of this within the poetic books, most notably the Psalms (see Psalm 19).  However, even in those repetitions there is often an advance or a little additional information.

So, wiser minds than mine have pointed out that this represents different degrees or levels in the Christian life,  particularly in the area of intercession or prayer. This is found elsewhere in scripture, most notably in I John which talks regarding spiritual “little children, young men and fathers.”

Spiritual children, regardless of age, regard prayer primarily as asking.  Note their objections or criticisms of prayer, namely, “I didn’t get what I asked for.”  Asking for things.  And first of all for self (and maybe for family or close friends).  Even this is honored by God, who tampers the wind to the lamb, as they say. Most of the time they receive what they ask in faith, if they don’t ask for the moon or the impossible.

Spiritual adolescents seek, and find – the Giver!  Things that are lost are already one’s own possession; we HAVE that.  But we lose sight of our love for the Giver. And the bible states plainly that “If with all your heart you truly seek me, you shall surely find me.” (Duet 4:29) Unbelievers may get lots of things, and often do, but never find the Giver.  What good is that, says Jesus.  And God is more eager to give Himself to us than things.

“Knock” represents a desire for entrance.  And the purpose of entrance, such as into another’s dwelling, is for fellowship.  Jesus says that if anyone opens the door (his own; his heart, his life), I will come in and make my home with him.  We will “sup” together. This is a level that many professing Christians do not attain.  They recognize God, thank Him for his gifts, etc., but to be like Him, to be on intimate terms with Him (”prayer without ceasing”) is an unfamiliar concept.

And that rare step is also easy.  One only has to want it, sincerely.  Without strings attached.  For it’s own reason, not in order to excel the other person, or have lots of spiritual gifts.  To settle for anything less is self-defeating. It is what God has made us for.  It is where true peace and contentment lie. And since God is infinite, you can never exhaust such “fullness.” Strength to strength, glory to glory, grace upon grace.  Which is why heaven will never get boring.