The Holy Spirit is Like…: Three Images of the Holy Spirit in Scripture

In Scripture there are three basic descriptions of the Holy Spirit. These symbols of the Holy Spirit’s presence help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Wind
The first of these images or symbols is wind. We read about this on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)

When the believers are gathered together in obedience to Jesus’ command to wait for the Spirit to come, they first of all encounter the wind or breath of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word that ruach is translated as breath, wind, or spirit. It is this word used in Genesis 1:2, where we read of God’s creative work in creation: “and the Spirit [ruach] of God was hovering over the waters.” This is the word used in Genesis 2:7 where we read: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life and the man became a living being.” The Holy Spirit is the basic breath of life – the spirit – that animates all creation and human beings.

Beyond bringing natural life, the Holy Spirit also brings spiritual life in the midst of humanity’s spiritual death through sin and ruptured relationship with God. In Ezekiel 376, when the prophet preaches to the valley of dry bones, they represent the spiritually dead people of God spiritually dead. It is the breath and wind that blows this mass of death into a living army of God. This is likely the idea behind Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is like wind that breathes life into us, spiritually restoring us with God through Christ.  So, when the violent wind rushes into the house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 we see that the Holy Spirit is coming in fulfillment of prophesy to breathe God’s divine life back into humanity.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Fire
Secondly, the Holy Spirit is described as fire. Here are the next two verses in Acts 2:

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:3-4)

Throughout Scripture, fire is a symbol of the presence of God. When Moses knelt at the burning bush (Exodus 3) or Elijah battled the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), fire symbolized the presence of God in holiness and power. Fire is a symbol of God’s leading presence, such as when God led His people out from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Fire also conveys God’s purifying presence, as when Isaiah had a vision of God and a coal was taken from the heavenly altar of God to purify Isaiah’s lips (Isaiah 6).  Lastly, fire is a symbol of God’s passionate presence, seeking after people. When he received a message from God, the prophet Jeremiah heard these words, “I will make my words in your mouth a fire” (Jeremiah 5:14). Later on, Jeremiah exclaimed, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (20:9)

And so, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the early disciples of Jesus in Acts 2 in the form of tongues of fire, He is kindling His presence within His people. That presence is for guidance, holiness, and passion for people into the early disciples.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Water
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is described as wind. Earlier in the book of Acts, just before His ascension, Jesus says to His disciples:

For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:5)

βαπτίζω (baptizo) means literally to immerse, and so Jesus is telling His followers that they will be washed or submerged in the Holy Spirit as we with water.  The Apostle Peter echoes this later, after the Pentecost arrival of the Holy Spirit, when preaches with  reference to the words of the prophet Joel, saying, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).

The Holy Spirit is like water poured into our lives from God. This reminds us of the Genesis account of Creation where the Spirit of God was hovering over the primordial waters of the cosmos that was still formless and void. The primordial deep was met with God’s Spirit to bring life.

It also calls to mind two episodes from Jesus’ life and ministry. The first is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman by the well in John 4. Moving from the earthly waters of Jacob’s well, Jesus says:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)

The second episode occurs when Jesus is at a great Jewish festival, the feast of tabernacles, in John 7. Speaking in the midst of a great crowd, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  John offers this explanatory statement immediately following: “By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believe in him were later to receive” (John 7:37b-39). The Holy Spirit is a gift like water that brings life to our souls and cleanses our dry and thirsty world.

These three images – wind, fire, water – help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. If the church wants to live and thrive, we must seek to live by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into us, who sets us ablaze with God’s power, and revives us with waters of life.

[This is an excerpt from my message, “Activated by the Holy Spirit,” preached at Eastbrook Church on September 6/7.]

Why I’m Not Giving Up on the Church

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Six years ago, I wrote this article for Relevant, and in light of my recent message from Ephesians 4 and my posts earlier this week, I think it is still as relevant as ever. It begins this way, but you can read the entire article here.

In 2011 the largest denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced the results of a survey showing a significant decline in baptisms and church membership. Ed Stetzer, a missioligist and researcher with Lifeway Research, commented at the time: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”

In the very same year, across the Atlantic, a report on the Church of England highlighted the challenges it was facing: aging congregations, faltering clergy recruitment and waning attendance. While church leaders used words like “crisis” and “time bomb,” the report predicted the church would likely be extinct within 20 years.

More recently, the Pew Research Center released a study on the state of religion in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study brings into focus the increasing growth rate of those who do not identify with any religion at all. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. adult population—and one-third of those under the age of 30—identify in this way; an increase from 15 percent just 5 years earlier.

For many people, these are signs that the church is, if not already dead, steadily moving toward the grave. And many have been calling for followers of Jesus to return to the original vision for our faith.

I have lived within the inner workings of the church for the past 15 years, and I will be one the first to agree with many who point out that the Church is full of brokenness.

When you stand on the inside of the church, you see the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been disheartened by the hypocrisy within the leadership of churches. I have experienced disillusionment when it seems like the church is more about ‘nickels and noses’ then it is about real life transformation. To be even more honest, I have seen my own failings and weaknesses as a supposed leader and wondered if this thing called church is truly real or worth it. There are times when I have wanted to give up on the church and ministry altogether.

But I’m not ready to sound the death toll for the Church. Here’s a story to tell you why.

[Read the entire article here.]

Challenges to the Hunger to Know

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This past weekend at Eastbrook, I explored the hunger that each of us have to know and be known as part of our Hungry for God sermon series. One aspect of this that I did not really get to explore as much as I had hoped was some of the challenges that we encounter with our hunger to know.

The Challenge of Limitations
One of the challenges about our hunger to know is that we often encounter our limitations with knowledge. Sometimes this appears in relation to scientific realities, such as the reality that there is more unknown ‘dark matter’ in the universe than what we can know, or the unintended consequences of genetic manipulation about mosquitos that scientists are currently wrestling with in their goal of eliminating malaria.  Sometimes our limitations are more basic, such as not being able to know what’s on someone else’s mind – whether a friend, lover, or boss – or our inability to know the future, one of the great anxieties of our lives

The Challenge of the Intrinsic Relationship between Knowledge and Power
Another challenge is the relationship between knowledge and power. There’s an old saying: “knowledge is power.” Knowledge serves not only to enlighten people, but to give certain people power. On the positive side, this is why so much effort has been given to help people learn to read. Literacy helps in the acquisition of knowledge, which is such an empowering breakthrough in life. At the same time, some people hold back knowledge from others as a means of brokering power in a way that keeps some down and props others up. Knowledge is power, but that power can be used dangerously or beneficially.

The Challenge of Neighbors to Knowledge
Another challenge about our hunger to know is the fine distinctions that exist between information, knowledge, belief, and wisdom. I
nformation tells us about things, but knowledge tells us why that information is useful. Belief is different from knowledge but equally important. Belief shapes our approach to the good (or moral) life. Belief is often devalued in comparison with knowledge. Some will say, “If you have to rely on belief, then you are unthinking.” But that is really an unthinking statement, since it derives from a position of belief. Knowledge and belief actually function in different, but overlapping, capacities in our lives. Appropriate knowledge is the basis of right belief. For example, if we know the stakes of winning in gambling are so low, we would do well to believe it and live accordingly. Knowledge and belief work together. Wisdom helps us know how to live well in light of appropriate knowledge and right belief. We ideally gain wisdom over the course of our lives, but not if we reject either knowledge and belief. That’s why we say there are some very smart people who do very stupid things in life. They lack wisdom.

The Challenge of the Eradication of God from Public Knowledge
Another challenge for us in our contemporary world is the tendency to eradicate knowledge of God and His ways from the realm of meaningful, public knowledge. 
Some will say that if you believe in God, then you should automatically not be taken seriously; which is probably one of the most biased, unthinking things one could say. All honest thinkers will at least admit that as much as people may say we cannot prove that God exists – and I think there are some pretty convincing proofs of God’s existence – as much as people may say we cannot prove that God does exist, we also cannot prove that God does not exist. After all, Jesus, even if all His claims about God were set aside, is widely commended for His contributions to humanity, for things such as the golden rule, love for the neighbor, and more. If Jesus and His followers viewed the basis for these contributions as rooted in the knowledge of God, then we certainly must not brush aside knowledge of and belief in God as significant for discussions in our hunger to know. We must allow that knowledge and belief in God be admitted as potentially important within the realm of meaningful, public knowledge, not just private, personal practice.

In the midst of all these challenges with our hunger to know, there is a word from God that we need to hear again today. It is found in Hosea 4:6:

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.

The challenges to the hunger to know are significant. Still, knowledge is vitally important. The hunger to know must be filled and satisfied with what can truly fill and satisfy that hunger. 

Pastor, Know Your Context

When I was a graduate student, I took a missions class called “Contextualization” as an elective. The class was essentially intended to equip missionaries for understanding the cross-cultural context, or setting, in which they were going to do mission work so that they could share the message of Christ in culturally astute ways. We discussed ethical issues like bribery, relational issues like polygamy, and theological issues like worship styles that fit the heart language of a people group.

Unfortunately, the mission principle of contextualization – doing ministry in culturally astute ways – is often relegated to clearly “missionary” or cross-cultural settings. But when we do ministry as pastors within United State, we often ignore the fact that we need to contextualize our ministry just as much in a setting that seems familiar.

We take for granted, for instance, that we actually know our setting. “After all,” we think to ourselves, “I’m an American doing ministry in America! What is there to understand?”I would like to contend, however, that we do not always understand our context as much as we think we do.

Here are six questions worth pondering for those of us who do ministry in the United States. While national history and trends must be considered, we must be aware of the specific state and local history and trends for our context. If you know the answers to these questions for your setting, kudos to you! If not, it is time for you to dig deeper in order to know your setting.

  1. What is the rough chronology or time-line of your city, town, or county? When and how was it founded and when and how did it expand?
  2. What ethnic groups make up your context and how did they come to be there over time? What are the cultural distinctives of those ethnic groups, and how are those distinctives continuing to impact your setting?
  3. What are the driving economic forces of your setting and how have those changed over time? How did national issues, such as the Great Depression or World War II, affect your setting economically?
  4. What have been the defining conflicts over time in your setting? Put another way, what governmental, ethnic, or economic issues have raised tension levels at different times?
  5. What has the religious climate been within your setting over the course of its history? What have been the ebbs and flows of church life, and how has the flow of cultural issues over time affected that positively or negatively?
  6. What would you see as the key 3-5 issues in your setting that the church must address in some way, whether directly or indirectly, in order to minister in culturally astute ways in the next 25 years?

A superficial familiarity with our setting may hinder us from truly knowing it and, thus, keep us from an effective ministry for the kingdom where God has placed us. We must dig deep to know our setting.

Bibliography for Daniel series

After many of my preaching series, I enjoy sharing a bibliography that I used to help prepare for that series. Sometimes they are wide-ranging, such as the series on the life of Joseph, while at other times they are more clearly bounded by one specific topic, such as the series on prayer.

Here is the resource bibliography that accompanies my recent preaching series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” Although I utilized many books or resources for specific messages within this series, I did not include all of those in this bibliography. Instead, I limited it to books I utilized through the series. The books I found particularly helpful are marked with an asterisk.

Bibliography on the book of Daniel:

Joyce Baldwin. Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978. [This volume in The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series was recently replaced with a new volume by Paul R. House, which was released this November. Baldwin’s commentary is still a wonderful resource.]

*John E. Goldingay. Daniel. WBC. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989.

*Sidney Greidanus. Preaching Christ from Daniel: Foundations for Expository Sermons. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

James M. Hamilton, Jr. With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology. NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

*Tremper Longman III. Daniel. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.

Ernest C. Lucas. “Daniel.” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 4. John H. Walton, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

________. “Daniel.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

W. D. Tucker, Jr. “Daniel: History of Interpretation.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Ronald S. Wallace. The Message of Daniel: The Lord is King. BST. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

Seeking God’s Will: The ‘Three Lights’ of God’s Guidance and Hearing God’s Voice

crossroadsMany of us search for God’s will in our lives. In fact, one of the most pervasive questions I receive as a pastor is: how do I know God’s will in my life?

In his book, The Secret of Guidance, F. B. Meyer writes these words:

God’s impressions within and his words without are always corroborated by his providence around, and we should quietly wait until those three focus into one point. . . . The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will, when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit with the Word of God.

According to Meyer, there are ‘three lights’ that serve as guiding points of reference when we discuss hearing God’s voice or gaining guidance in life. They are: impressions of the Spirit, words from Scripture, and our circumstances. Along with these three, some will often include the wise counsel of godly friends and mentors.

When we are seeking to know God’s will and make decisions in accordance with His will, it is very helpful to consider how God might be speaking to us through these three lights. It is worth paying attention to what we are reading in Scripture, what our circumstances may be highlighting for us, and also how the internal voice of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us.

Dallas Willard writes about this in his book Hearing God:

It is possible to understand this precious advice in such a way that it completely resolves any problem about divine guidance. . . . But for those who do not yet have a confident, working familiarity with the Voice, the three lights may speedily result in a swirl of confusion (183).

So, when we think of ‘getting guidance’ from God, we not only need to consider the three lights that F. B. Meyer holds before us. We also need to grow in familiarity with the voice of God. The more familiar we are with a friend, the more easily we can understand what he or she is saying and what the nuances of their voice means. The same is true with God. The more we listen to Him and familiarize with Him by daily walking in closeness to God, the more easy it will be to discern His will. The more we know who God is, the more easily we will be able to rightly grasp the guidance He is giving through our circumstances, the Spirit’s impressions, and the Scripture.

Evangelical Dis-incarnation and Online Church: some thoughts on Judah Smith and Churchome Global

Churchome_virtual_churchThis past week, Judah Smith, pastor of Churchome (formerly ‘City Church’) announced via Twitter that the church’s latest “site” would be through an app on your smart phone. You can read an article about it here: “Judah Smith Launches Church ‘in the palm of your hand.'”  This move, listed as on of the locations on the church’s web-site, is dubbed “Churchome Global.”

I have some sympathy with Smith’s move here in that, as a pastor, in many ways I want to help as many people as possible encounter Christ and, in finding community with God through Christ, also find a community of belonging in a local church fellowship. If we have the greatest treasure, some would say, we need to share that treasure with the most people possible. However, it is worth considering whether the way we share the treasure not only devalues what it is, but changes the very nature of what we are offering.

Smith’s move is utterly unsurprising to me, as it is merely the latest iteration of something churches have been doing since the power of technology has dramatically increased our reach of people and the rise of the mega-church seeker movement has altered our thinking about what church and ministry really are.  The endeavor Smith is pursuing here seems like the next logical move beyond online small groups or campuses resulting from a radically dis-incarnate, gnostic theology within the North American evangelical church that has made the ultimate goal “connection” and “reaching people” at any cost.

Once again, this faddish push fails to realize that the “ends” do not justify the “means,” particularly when those means violate the essential incarnational communion of an enfleshed Savior. Neither does it grapple seriously with studies that show online “connection,” whether through social media or other means, contributes toward increased levels of loneliness, stress, and depression.

It is one thing to share information or resources online, but it is another thing to promise church (sanctorum communio) online.