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Christ’s Birth and the Spirit

February 28th, 2020

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 BSB)

In order to tell the story of Jesus, where should we begin?

Matthew began with the calling of Abraham. Mark began with Isaiah’s prophecy about John the Baptist. John began with the nature of God and the creation of the universe. Luke, however, began with the movement of the Spirit.

All four of the Gospels agree that the coming of Christ was initiated by God. It was God who called Abraham. It was God who moved in Isaiah by His Spirit to give him the prophetic word. It was God who called and sent John the Baptist as the forerunner of Christ. Both Luke and Matthew speak of the involvement of the Spirit in the miraculous birth of Jesus, but Luke continues on this theme to a greater degree. His purpose in doing so, as the Spirit inspired him, was to give us an understanding of what it means for the Spirit to empower the lives and witness of the church.

The Power of the Most High

The Spirit is the “power of the Most High God.” This title connects back to the Old Testament, especially to: Job 16:19, “My advocate is on high;” to Psalm 113:5, “The LORD our God, the One who sit enthroned on high;” and to Isaiah 57:15,

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

This can leave no question about who the Spirit of God is: He is God. There is no possibility in light of these verses of consigning Him to anything lower than this.

That the Spirit is called “the power” (dunamis) of God indicates the domain in which He works. His role is to work in the power of God in our hearts and lives. And the description of His gentleness, especially in the impregnation of Mary, is seen in the phrase “shall over shadow you.” So from the beginning of the story of Jesus, Luke presents us with this revelation of the highest God in His power accomplishing His will. He seems like a gentle and gracious steamroller moving in unstoppable power to do the will of the Father. This understanding prepares us for what we will see in Acts in the expansion of the church.

Overshadowing and Purifying Us

In these passages about the birth of John and Jesus, we are seeing the interaction between God and human beings. There is both gentleness and sternness. At the baptism of Christ the emblem of the Spirit was a dove, gentle and hovering. The first biblical image of the Spirit is in Genesis 1:2, like a dove hovering over the waters. The fruit of the Spirit in our lives is love, joy, hope, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23). He is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3), the “other Comforter” that Jesus spoke of, other like Him (John 14:16).

But we read later in Luke that the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus shall effect is a baptism of purifying fire, consuming the impure things in our souls (Luke 3:16-17). Certainly to receive the Spirit of Christ in our lives is a baptism of fire, and the Spirit will never release us from His grip until He purifies us entirely from sin.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6 ESV).

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your entire spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 ESV)

There is a gentleness to the Spirit of God, and just as He overshadowed Mary with His all powerful gentleness, so He does this in our lives as well. But if this gentleness is rejected, then He does not run away from His child, rather He comes as the consuming fire of God, “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

Can’t we see both of these in the life of Paul as Luke presents him. This young firebrand of a pharisee is at first wooed by God gently, as were the other religious leaders. Christ Himself came as a lamb and silently endured their mistreatment. Then the apostles came more sternly, reminding them that they had crucified Jesus:

Men of Israel, listen to this message: Jesus of Nazareth was a man certified by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know. He was delivered up by God’s set plan and foreknowledge, and you, by the hands of the lawless, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross. But God raised Him from the dead, releasing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its clutches. (Acts 2:22-24 ESV)

Paul was not there at Pentecost, so far as we know, but he was among the group of religious leaders who complained about the constant accusations of the apostles against them with regard to Jesus: “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” (Acts 6:28).

When Paul is met on the road to Damascus by the resurrected Jesus, Christ compared him to a stubborn farm animal kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14), and said in gentlesness, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). But there was the sternness also of the blindness he experienced. Though it is impossible to fully prove from scripture, many of us believe that this vision and temporary blindness led to Paul’s thorn in the flesh because: (1) the encrustations “like scales” that fell from his eyes (Acts 9:18); (2) mentioning that he was among the Galatians originally due to a sickness, and that the Galatians were willing to give him their own eyes, if possible, out of their love for him; and (3) he ends the letter to the Galatians by taking the stylus in his own hand and writing in larger letters (Gal. 6:11).

But there is in this possibility a recognizable trait of God’s dealing with us. God is pleased to save us and to favor us, but to do so He also often finds it needful and beneficial to us to wound us in the process. The weaknesses He leaves us with turn out to be a great blessing in that they make us constantly dependent on God, and aware that the thing God has taken from us was not essential and has not removed Christ from us. As God told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Consider:

  • Abraham and Sarah, a barren elderly couple became parents of the nation of Israel.
  • Jacob walked with a limp after he wrestled with God and received a blessing.
  • Joseph was despised by his brothers, lost his freedom before he was lifted up.
  • Moses struggled his entire life time with the damage his anger had caused to him and to others, but became the great deliverer of Israel.
  • David was the anointed of God yet lived in caverns hiding form Saul for twenty years.
  • John the apostle, who was a young firebrand like Paul had been, a “son of thunder,” lost his brother James, and cared for Mary, Jesus’ mother, for the first years of the expansion of the church, and did not rise to prominence until after Paul had gone to heaven. Then he softened and became the apostle of love, calling himself humbly in his Gospel, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

We can, of course, mention others, such as Job, Elijah, or Jeremiah, but these words below from Miles Stanford are proven repeatedly in both biblical accounts and in the lives of followers of Christ throughout history:

It seems that most believers have difficulty in realizing and facing up to the inexorable fact that God does not hurry in His development of our Christian life. He is working from and for eternity! So many feel they are not making progress unless they are. swiftly and constantly forging ahead. Now it is true that the new convert often begins and continues for some time at a fast rate. But this will not continue if there is to be healthy growth and ultimate maturity. God Himself will modify the pace. This is important to see, since in most instances when seeming declension begins to set in, it is not, as so many think, a matter of backsliding. John Darby makes it plain that “it is God’s way to set people aside after their first start, that self-confidence may die down. Thus Moses was forty years. On his first start he had to run away. Paul was three years also, after his first testimony. Not that God did not approve the first earnest testimony. We must get to know ourselves and that we have no strength. Thus we must learn, and then leaning on the Lord we can with more maturity, and more experientially, deal with souls.”

What must God take from you?

Every life that I have ever known, especially my own, has something, or several things, that are our “pet sins” that God must take from us. All the losses we experience in our lives as followers of Christ, we will see in eternity if not before, will serve as blessings, to make us more dependent on Him, more rested in Him, more at peace in Him and in Him alone.

There is no mountain of spiritual development that we may simply go around and become a complete person in Christ. All of our weaknesses must go. All of our lusts, all of our pride, all of our biases, our sinful prejudices, our carnal and fleshly indulgences. There are none that we may take with us into eternity.

It is well said that it is not what a man possesses that condemns him as guilty before God, but rather it is what of this possesses him. If we have our wealth and allow it to make us arrogant and proud, then God will judge us for that. If, on the other hand, it is received in thankfulness and seen as something that we may use to bless those entrusted to our care, and further the cause of Christ, then that is another matter.

But spiritual growth is achieved by God’s grace, and by His power. We must die daily and let our lives be “not-I-but-Christ” lives. It is His achievement and it becomes ours only by our constant dependence on Him.

I do not suppose that any of us, no matter how we progress in the eyes of other Christians, will be completed in the development our personal righteousness and spiritual maturity while we are on this earth, while we still must daily contend with the sinful nature and the world and the devil. And the promise that God shall complete the work in His way in eternity is comfort for us. God shall in His way and in His time, on the basis of His grace, perfect us.

What does God need to take from you to make you holy?

 

Luke's Gospel, Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Maturity

Growing Up

February 25th, 2019

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head. From Him the whole body is fitted and held together by every supporting ligament; and as each individual part does its work, the body grows and builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16 BSB)

Gifted men are given to the church to enable the church to grow numerically and spiritually. It seems that churches are either drawn to qualify their numerical growth or their spiritual growth, but, in truth, they are both important to God. 

To qualify numerical growth is relatively simple. We just count people – attendances, how many baptized, how many received Christ, etc.. But to qualify spiritual growth is more difficult and requires both short-term measurements and longer-term measurements. Short-term measurements are usually based on classes attended – similar to numerical growth, but in the realm of discipleship – and are relatively simple. But long-term growth can only be measured by observation, and are specifically revealed in how people handle their resources and opportunities, but also how they handle temptations, challenges, conflicts, troubles, difficulties, sicknesses, and discouragements.

The tools of growth

God calls and sends people into our lives to teach us the Word of God, and to help apply it to our lives. The Great Commission is not to merely give information but to “teach to obey” the commands of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). The practical teaching of the Word of God is essential to spiritual maturity. But also shared experiences, testimonies, prayer, examples of walking in the Spirit, and encouragements – all of these are tools God uses in our lives for our spiritual maturity.

Just as a balanced nutritional diet produces healthy bodies, so a balanced spiritual diet produces healthy Christian souls. 

We grow in stability

As we grow spiritually we are to build up a spiritual resistance against fear and panic, against false and divisive teachers, and to remain committed to the Lord. The sign that someone is growing in their faith is that they are not getting drawn aside by every new twist of the truth, that they do not run here or there to find some new teacher or teaching, but that they are feeding regularly on the Word of God. 

I see this as a matter of our faith, that faith that is real is sincere and embraces the truth. I have known too many Christians who will follow Christ only as long as the pastor stands by them and holds their hand, only so long as he is available to answer all their questions. But as soon as he is not there then they are vulnerable to being pulled away. 

To me they epitomize the two types of soils that are unproductive in Christ’s parable:

The seeds on rocky ground are those who hear the word and receive it with joy, but they have no root. They believe for a season, but in the time of testing, they fall away. The seeds that fell among the thorns are those who hear, but as they go on their way, they are choked by the worries, riches, and pleasures of this life, and their fruit does not mature. (Luke 8:13-14)

Sadly there are too many like this. The sign that someone is experiencing genuine spiritual growth from God is that they continue in the Word and with the teachers that God has given to them. The one who changes churches frequently never seems to mature – they go more for “sparkle” than for substance, for the “tickling of ears” than the truth of God.

For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. (2 Tim. 4:3)

We grow in Christ

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head” (Eph. 4:15). The growth of the body should match the size of its head. Young babies have large heads compared to their bodies, but as they grow they grow “into their heads,” or in accordance to the size of their heads. And this is how the church should grow and the Christian should grow. 

This is done by “speaking the truth in love” and we cannot neglect either part of this equation. Some preachers and teachers emphasize speaking the truth, but neglect doing so in love. Others emphasize love, but neglect speaking the truth. But the growing Christian needs both. As James wrote: 

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap the fruit of righteousness. (James 3:17-18)

The final sentence of James 3 is simple to understand, but it is difficult to translate. A wooden translation would be: “But the fruit of righteousness is planted in peace by those who make peace.” The meaning is that the best chance for the seeds of truth in the Word of God to grow to their full maturity is when they are planted or taught in a spirit of graciousness and  peace.

This is entirely fitting, for we are growing into Christ, and growth into Him requires more than just head knowledge – it requires heart knowledge as well. We need to learn biblical truths but we are to learn them in the right atmosphere as well, so that our attitudes are changed along with our understanding. One may be biblically right but spiritually wrong in how he says it. 

Remember the church at Ephesus was later rebuked by Christ at the close of the first century in Revelation. The Lord spoke to the church and said: 

I know your deeds, your labor, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate those who are evil, and you have tested and exposed as liars those who falsely claim to be apostles. Without growing weary, you have persevered and endured many things for the sake of My name. But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love. (Rev. 2:2-4)

Despite their labor for the Lord and their intolerance of false teachers, they had lost their first love – that is the love for Christ. Vance Havner, the great revivalist, said that they had “hot heads and cold hearts.” 

There certainly are times and places where rebukes are appropriate, but the Christian rebuke is never to be given in anger but in compassion. Paul wrote: “For as I have often told you before, and now declare even with tears: Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). And Solomon wrote: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15).

We grow together

The final statement in this passage about spiritual growth is that we grow together, just as our bodies do: “The whole body is fitted and held together by every supporting ligament” (Eph. 4:16). Whether we remain in one church for most of our Christian journey, or whether we must relocate often and are associated with many churches, the Christian life must always be lived in concert with other believers. The lone Christian, who stays by himself, and does not enter into conversations or circumstances with other Christians will not mature as God intended him to.

“Fitted” points to the uniqueness of each part of the body of Christ. You and I have something to offer by virtue of being unique people, and if we do not offer this in some way the body of Christ will be lacking an important aspect. “Held together” points to the inter-supporting network that a Christian fellowship is to have. Everyone is valued, every gift is acknowledged, and even contribution is precious. 

There is an important point that must be made – that our spiritual gifts are not the same as our personhood. The Bible plainly says that some spiritual gifts are “greater” than others – notably the teaching gifts, because they produce other mature Christians and open the door so that the so-called “lesser gifts” can be received (1 Cor. 12:27-31). But no Christian is greater than another Christian.

For example, we cannot and should not try to give equal time on a Sunday morning worship service to each of the spiritual gifts, for that is not how they are designed. The gifts of helps and mercy, for example, are used best in private and sometimes shameful situations – the gifts are not shameful, but the circumstances which they are able to redeem may be a great embarrassment to some. The gifts of teaching and preaching, however, need to be publicly expressed. The gift is greater for it benefits many more people, but the preacher or teacher is not greater than any other Christian. 

So this is how we grow up in Christ:

  • We grow stable through faith in His Word
  • We grow in character through the truth being preached in love
  • We grow together as we celebrate and support one another in love.

The question is whether you have positioned yourself for spiritual growth? Are you in the Word, in prayer, in the church? Have you committed your heart and soul to the Word of God? Have you accepted that the basic tools of growth are His Word, His Spirit, and His people? Have you sought to learn biblical facts as well as the character of Christ? Are you vitally connected with a meaningful body of Christ, with other believers with whom you discuss biblical truth and obeying and following Christ?   

 

 

Ephesians, Growth Points, Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Leadership, Spiritual Maturity