What Does It Mean Today? John Rogers
Well, of course, it means today what it always meant. But how may we see what it means to us today in our particular circumstances? It is not that the Holy Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost to bring something completely new, something that God's people had never had before. If I understand things well, the special coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost was "in power" (Acts 1:8), and that in two respects.
First of all, in regard to the idea of being "born again". Believers had always been born again, of course, otherwise they could never have become believers. So Abraham had been born again, David had been born again, and so forth. However, it is true that it is only in the New Testament that this concept is explicitly taught, although the idea of circumcising the heart is related to it. But the Holy Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost to broaden, to widen that regenerating work.
Jesus told the disciples, when they asked him in Acts 1 whether the kingdom would now be restored to Israel, to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit shall come upon you "in power ... and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth." This is why Peter quotes that prophecy of Joel in Acts 2 about God's Spirit being poured out on all flesh, their sons and daughters prophesying, young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams and so on. This is connected with the New Testament idea of all believers being prophets, priests and kings which, in turn, is connected with Paul's teaching that every believer has a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the new dispensation ushered in by Pentecost, the Gospel was to break out of its Jewish banks and flood over into the whole world. In order for the Church to do this, no longer would there be only a few prophets, priests and kings, but every member of the renewed Israel was to be a Holy Spirit-gifted prophet, priest and king. This idea is not absent in the Old Testament Israel always was to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, but only in the New Testament is every member of that holy nation and kingdom of priests anointed with the Holy Spirit and thus empowered as a prophet, priest and king. So whereas, in the Old Testament, the nations were to look at Israel and see her wonderful and just laws (Deut.4) and say, "What nation has a God like this?" and thus be attracted to her and her God, in the New Testament, while that aspect is still present, nevertheless the New Testament Israel is to be much more aggressive in her representational task. That is, she is no longer sent into Canaan; she is now sent out to the world and every member in her has been empowered for that.
A Deeper Work
The other respect in which the Holy Spirit came upon the Church "in power" at Pentecost is not so much to enable her to perform a broader work, but a deeper work. Perhaps 2 Peter 1:3ff speaks about this as well as any other passage. "His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." Could we put it like this? In the New Testament, the Spirit's work of regeneration reaches more widely than in the Old. And in the New Testament, the Spirit's work of sanctification reaches more deeply than in the Old. "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, viz., I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts." (Jeremiah 32:32ff.) Or, as it is put elsewhere, "I will remove their heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh."
And here we need to understand carefully what the Holy Spirit has entered our hearts to do. We are aware of the old saying of Augustine that "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." But we also need to set this thought, a proper aspect of the truth of Scripture, in its proper relation to the rest. Certainly Jesus did come to give us rest for our souls. But there is a lot of this sort of talk in the world today and we need to distinguish very carefully between that which is true and that which is false. Also, the idea of Peter's that God has made us to "be partakers of the divine nature.”
A Matter of Sin & Righteousness
Recently in Auckland we had a visit by the Supreme Master Ching Hai, and were invited to "Experience the Divine." By her "ancient supreme method of meditation" we may "find the inner light and sound. This inner melody can heal all wounds, fulfil all desires, and quench all worldly thirsts. (Is that not what Augustine was talking about?) It is all-powerful and all-loving. It is because we are made of this Sound that contact with it brings peace and contentment to our hearts. After listening to the Sound, our whole being changes; our entire outlook on life is greatly altered for the best." For this method "helps one to rediscover the Almighty power within." There are bits and pieces of all this that ring familiarly. But, among others, there is one absolutely important aspect that is completely missing. In Christianity, to experience God living within us is directly the result of being reconciled with a holy God through the sacrificial death of His only begotten Son. Further, to "participate in the divine nature" is not a matter of discovering something about our being, about who and what we are that we did not know before. It is a matter of, having been cleansed by Christ's blood and thus "having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust," now sharing in the ethical, the moral nature of God. "Be ye holy even as your Father in heaven is holy." It is a matter of sin and righteousness, not, firstly, a matter of physical or mental healing and wholeness.
With all the talk one often hears of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit in Christian circles, this aspect is often lacking, and more and more the emphasis is on healing and wholeness. A lot of supposedly Christian talk is sounding more and more like everyday New Age talk. The reason for this is that we have forgotten something enormously important about Pentecost. In the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ the Almighty, Holy God came down to earth and lived among us in human flesh. At Pentecost, it was not just some being called the Holy Spirit who came down. It was the Almighty, Holy God who came down to earth to live within us and within his Church in the Person of His Holy Spirit. Because we have forgotten that and no longer stand in awe of the holy God who dwells among us (as much as we might sing it), the Church looks less like the Church and more like the world, and its message sounds less like the Church's message and more like an inspirational pep-talk, even a sales conference.
This is well brought out in the following paragraph I read some time ago from David Wells' book, God in the Wasteland;
The church's awareness that it belongs to God at once mentally, morally, and spiritually, is dependent on an awareness that God stands outside the currents of modernity and, in important ways, over against them. The fact that he is holy means there is an otherness to him. In the context of modernity, this moral otherness has been converted into a relatedness that is wholly compatible with the morality of modernity. That is to say, the church's identity vanishes where transcendence melts into immanence. Or, we might also say that it disappears where theocentric faith (ie., faith centred on God as an objective reality) becomes anthropocentric faith (i.e., faith centred on therapeutic interest in the self).... Where this happens, God becomes merely a convenient means by which to satisfy the self. He becomes too small to sustain a moral and spiritual enterprise as demanding and as large as the church. He becomes too small to sustain faith in a world where the normative beliefs are overwhelmingly erroneous, to sustain goodness in a world that overwhelmingly champions badness, to sustain life in a world where death is inescapable. Where this happens, the church no longer belongs to God in anything other than name.
Of course, in grace, God is for us. But that does not mean that in Himself God is for us. Even less does it mean that we also are to be for us. We are to do all things to his glory.
Is not Wells right when he says that the faith of the church in today's world is not centred upon God as the enormous overwhelming reality of the universe? Where do we hear that He simply is and let all the earth stand silent before him? Is he not right when he says that the faith of the modern church is "centred on the therapeutic interest in the self"? Is he not therefore right when he says that if that is true, "the church no longer belongs to God in anything other than name?" He is right, and that is why so much of the Church today lives as though it belongs to the self. That has happened because the Church has heard that Jesus said, "Behold, I will send you another Comforter," and forgotten that that Comforter is "the great power of God". This Pentecost, let us not forget that it was the Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, the Holy God, who is light and in him is no darkness at all and into whose hands to fall is a fearful thing, who came down in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Mr John Rogers is the Minister of the Reformed Church of the North Shore