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Taking the Bible “Literally”

Article contributed by Stand To Reason
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I never like the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it awkward to answer.

Clearly, even those of us with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.

On the other hand, we do take seriously accounts others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.

A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.

Taking “Literally” Literally

Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.” Why do people balk at this common-sense notion when it comes to the Bible or, more precisely, certain passages in the Bible?

Let’s face it, even non-Christians read the Bible in its “usual or most basic sense” most of the time on points that are not controversial. They readily take statements like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “remember the poor” at face value. When citing Jesus’ directive, “Do not judge,” they’re not deterred by the challenge, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

No, when critics agree with the point of a passage, they take the words in their ordinary and customary sense. They naturally understand that language works a certain way in everyday communication, and it never occurs to them to think otherwise.

Unless, of course, the details of the text trouble them for some reason.

What of the opening chapters of Genesis? Is this a straightforward account describing historical events the way they actually happened? Were Adam and Eve real people, the first human beings? Was Adam created from dust? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a great fish? Did a virgin really have a baby? Such claims seem so fanciful to many people it’s hard for them to take the statements at face value.

Other times, the critic simply does not like what he reads. He abandons the “literal” approach when he comes across something in the text that offends his own philosophical, theological, or moral sensibilities. Jesus the only way of salvation? No way. Homosexuality a sin? Please. A “loving” God sending anyone to the eternal torture of Hell? Not a chance.

Notice the objection with these teachings is not based on some ambiguity making alternate interpretations plausible, since the Scripture affirms these truths with the same clarity as “love your neighbor.” No, these verses simply offend. Suddenly, the critic becomes a skeptic and sniffs, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

This subtle double standard, I think, is usually at the heart of the taking-the-Bible-literally challenge. Sometimes the ruse is hard to unravel.

An example might be helpful here.

Literal vs. Lateral

In the Law of Moses, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Lev. 18:22-23 and 20:13). Therefore (the charge goes), any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate the execution of homosexuals.

Of course, the strategy with this move is obvious: If we don’t promote executing homosexuals, we can’t legitimately condemn their behavior, since both details are in the Bible. If we don’t take the Bible literally in the first case, we shouldn’t in the second case, either. That’s being inconsistent.

How do we escape the horns of this dilemma? By using care and precision with our definitions, that’s how.

Here’s our first question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally? If you’re not sure how to answer, let me ask it another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend its citizens to understand the words of the regulations “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion”?

Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. The same would be true for the Mosaic Law. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.

But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of the dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? For that matter, aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, both capital crimes under the Law?

The simple answer is no. Here’s why. Just because a biblical command is intended to be understood literally, does not mean it is intended to be applied laterally, that is, universally across the board to all peoples at all times in all places.

Consider this situation. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, in its ordinary sense. He had no reason to think otherwise. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies laterally to everyone else. We’re not obliged to cast nets into deep water just because Peter was.

Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be read literally, but don’t have lateral application to all states. They only apply to those in California.

In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads them. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey its precepts.

The Jews in the theocracy were expected to obey the legal code God gave them, including the prohibition of and punishment for homosexuality. It was not the legal code God gave to gentiles, however. Therefore, even if the words of the Mosaic Law are to be taken literally by those under the jurisdiction of that code, this does not mean that in our current circumstances we are governed by the details of the provisions of that Law.

A clarification is necessary here. Am I saying that nothing written in the Mosaic Law is ever applicable to Christians or other gentiles or that there are no universal moral obligations that humanity shares with the Jews of Moses’ time. No, I’m not saying that.

Though Moses gave legal statutes for Jews under the theocracy, that Law in some cases still reflects moral universals that have application for those outside the nation of Israel. Yes, we can glean wisdom and moral guidance from the Law of Moses for our own legal codes, but there are limits. Working out those details is a different discussion, however. 1

The question here is not whether we take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that legal code. We are not. That law was meant for Jews living under a theocracy defined by their unique covenant with God. Simply because a directive appears in the Mosaic Law does not, by that fact alone, make it obligatory for those living outside of Israel’s commonwealth.

Americans are a mixture of peoples in a representative republic governed by a different set of decrees than the Jews under Moses. We are not obliged to obey everything that came down from Sinai. Just because it was commanded of the Nation of Israel does not necessarily mean it is commanded of us. If anyone thinks otherwise, he is duty-bound to take his net and cast it into deep water.

That confusion aside, we’re still faced with our original question: When do we take the Bible literally?

Reading the Ordinary Way

Here’s how I would lay the groundwork for an answer. If I’m asked if I take the Bible literally, I would say I think that’s the wrong question. I’d say instead that I take the Bible in its ordinary sense, that is, I try to take the things recorded there with the precision I think the writer intended.

I realize this reply might also be a bit ambiguous, but here, I think, that’s a strength. Hopefully, my comment will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what I want. I’d clarify by countering with a question: “Do you read the sports page literally?”

If I asked you this question, I think you’d pause because there is a sense in which everyone reads the sports page in a straightforward way. Certain factual information is part of every story in that section. However, you wouldn’t take everything written in a woodenly literal way that ignores the conventions of the craft.

Literally?” you might respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as literal. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d read his statement that way, figuratively, not literally.”

Exactly. Sportswriters use a particular style to communicate the details of athletic contests clearly. They choose precise (and sometimes imaginative) words and phrases to convey a solid sense of the particulars in an entertaining way.

Sportswriters routinely use words like “annihilated,” “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “stomped,” and “pounded,” yet no one speculates about literal meanings. Readers don’t scratch their heads wondering if cannibalism was involved when they read “the Anaheim Angels devoured the St. Louis Cardinals.”

We recognize such constructions as figures of speech used to communicate in colorful ways events that actually (“literally”) took place. In fact, we never give those details a second thought because we understand how language works.

When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward fashion, we read them as such. When we encounter obvious figures of speech, we take them that way, too.

That’s the normal way to read the sports page. It’s also the normal—and responsible—way to read any work, including the Bible. Always ask, “What is this writer trying to communicate?” This is exactly what I’m after when I say, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.”

Of course, someone may differ with the clear point the Bible is making. Fair enough. There’s nothing dishonest about disagreement. Or they might think some Christian is mistaken on its meaning. Misinterpretation is always possible. Conjuring up some meaning that has little to do with the words the writer used, though, is not a legitimate alternative.

If someone disagrees with the obvious sense of a passage, ask them for the reasons they think the text should be an exception to the otherwise sound “ordinary sense” rule. Their answer will tell you if their challenge is intellectually honest, or if they’re just trying to dismiss biblical claims they simply don’t like.

Two Thoughts on Metaphor

Reading any writing the ordinary way requires we understand two points about figurative speech, both implicit in the concept of metaphor.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable…a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” So, metaphors take one meaning of a word and then creatively leverage it into another meaning to make an impact on a reader.

Here is the first point to be clear on: All metaphors (or other forms of figurative writing) rely first on literal definitions before they can be of any use as figures of speech.

All words must first be understood in their “usual or most basic sense” before they can be used metaphorically. We find, for example, the word “shepherd” prominently featured in the 23rd Psalm. Do you see that we must first understand the literal meaning of “shepherd” before the phrase “the Lord is my shepherd” has any figurative power?

This point is critical for accurate biblical interpretation. Here’s why.

Sometimes we attempt to solve interpretive problems by digging through a Bible dictionary. This can be a helpful place to start, but since all figurative language trades in some way on dictionary definitions, the dictionary is not the final word. It can never tell you what use a specific writer is making of any particular word or phrase.

Strictly speaking, since no word is a metaphor in itself, words cannot be used metaphorically unless they’re embedded in a context. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask of a solitary word, “Is the word meant literally?” because the word standing on its own gives no indication.

Dictionaries by definition can only deal with words in isolation. Other things—context, genre, flow of thought, etc.—determine if the word’s literal sense is being applied in a non-literal way, symbolically “regarded as representative” of something else.

Take two sentences, “The sunshine streamed through my window,” and, “Sweetheart, you’re a ray of sunshine to me this morning.” Sunshine’s literal meaning is the same in each case. However, it is used literally in the first sentence, but metaphorically in the second. Further, unless my wife understands the literal meaning of “sunshine,” she will never understand the compliment I’m offering her in a poetic sort of way.

So first, literal definitions must be in place first before a word can be used figuratively. Second, metaphors are always meant to clarify, not obscure.2

There’s a sense in which figurative speech drives an author’s meaning home in ways that words taken in the ordinary way could never do. “All good allegory,” C.S. Lewis notes, “exists not to hide, but to reveal, to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.”3

Figurative speech communicates literal truth in a more precise and powerful way than ordinary language can on its own. The strictly literal comment, “Honey, your presence makes me feel good today” doesn’t pack the punch that the “sunshine” figure provides. The metaphor makes my precise point more powerfully than “words in their usual or most basic sense” could accomplish.

Remember, even when metaphor is in play, some literal message is always intended. Hell may not have literal flames,4 but the reality is at least as gruesome, ergo the figure.

Once again, it’s always right to ask, “What is the precise meaning the writer is trying to communicate with his colorful language?” But how do we do that? Here I have a suggestion.

The Most Important Thing

If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one useful tip I could offer to help you solve the riddle of Scriptural meaning, it’s this: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least.

On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m not familiar with the particular passage. When I quickly survey the paragraph containing the verse in question, the larger context almost always provides the information I need to help me understand what’s going on.

This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.

Here’s how it works. First, get the big picture. Look at the broader context of the book. What type of writing is it—history, poetry, proverb, letter? Different genres have different rules for reading them.

Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Then ask yourself, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse in question? In general, what idea is being developed? What is the flow of thought?”

With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. When you come up with something that seems right, sum it up in your own words. Finally—and this step is critical— see if your paraphrase—your summary—makes sense when inserted in place of the verse in the passage.

I call this “the paraphrase principle.” Replace the text in question with your paraphrase and see if the passage still makes sense in light of the larger context. Is it intelligible when inserted back into the paragraph? Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture? If it doesn’t, you know you’re on the wrong track.

This technique will immediately weed out interpretations that are obviously erroneous. It’s not a foolproof positive test for accuracy since some faulty interpretations could still be coherent in the context. However, it is a reliable negative test, quickly eliminating alternatives that don’t fit the flow of thought.

If you will begin to do these two things—read the context carefully and apply the paraphrase principle—you will radically improve the accuracy of your interpretations. Remember, meaning always flows from the larger units to the smaller units. Without the bigger picture, you’ll likely be lost.

Don’t forget the rule: Never read a Bible verse. Always read a paragraph at least if you want to be confident you’re getting the right meaning of the verse.

Do I take the Bible literally? I try to I take it at its plain meaning unless I have some good reason to do otherwise. This is the basic rule we apply to everything we read: novels, newspapers, periodicals, and poems. I don’t see why the Bible should be any different.


1 For the record, I think the immorality of homosexuality is one of those universals since, among other reasons, it’s identified in the New Testament as wrong irrespective of the Mosaic Law (e.g., Rom. 1:27).

2 The exception to the generalization would be the parables Jesus told His disciples so that they would understand the meaning, but the crowds listening in would not. Mark 4:10

3 C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, “Afterword to Third Edition,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 208.

4 In more than one instance, Jesus described Hell as “outer darkness” (e.g., Matt. 8:12) and literal flames give light.

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October 20, 2013

Over 36 years ago when I began as a pastor (at age 30), I was extremely unsure about whether I could do the job. I didn’t know whether I could come up with new sermons week after week without running dry. I wasn’t sure about whether I could adequately shepherd God’s flock or fulfill the other demands of the position. So I told the Lord, “I’ll try it for three years and see where I’m at.”

Although many weeks I still feel so overwhelmed with inadequacy that I think about quitting, by God’s grace alone, I’m still serving as a pastor. No text in the New Testament has helped me do what I do as much as the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. It might better be called the feeding of the 20,000, because there were 5,000 men, plus women and children. It’s not just a literal miracle witnessed by thousands of people. It’s also a parable with many lessons about the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ to meet the vast needs of the world through His inadequate disciples. Although they were completely inadequate to meet the needs of this hungry crowd, they gave the little that they had to the Lord, who blessed it and multiplied it so that they could distribute it to the people. That’s been my experience for 36 years now.

This is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, which shows its significance. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 37:419) says that it’s in all four gospels so that we won’t forget how much the Lord can do with little things that are yielded to Him. The feeding of the 5.000 precedes Jesus’ discourse on being the living Bread that comes down out of heaven to give His life for the world (6:32-58). So it’s also a miracle that points to salvation. John wrote this sign “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

John begins the story (6:1): “After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias).” The last time note in John (5:1) mentioned an unnamed “feast of the Jews.” If it was the Feast of Tabernacles, five to six months have passed. The other gospels inform us that Jesus has sent out the twelve on a ministry tour. They have come back and reported their experiences to Him. Meanwhile, they got word that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Jesus and the disciples were so busy with all the needy people that they didn’t even have time to eat. So Jesus invited them to get away to a desolate place for some much needed rest.

So they took a boat across the northern end of the Sea of Galilee to a spot in the country north of Bethsaida (home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter). The problem was, the crowds saw them go, ran around the lake on foot, and greeted them as they disembarked (Mark 6:33). The disciples must have thought, “Oh no! We can’t get away from these needy people!” But Jesus felt compassion for them, taught them, and healed their sick (Mark 6:34; Matt. 14:14).

John (6:2) notes, “A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick.” These people weren’t following Jesus because they recognized Him as the Son of God who could save them from their sins. Some were fascinated just seeing the miracles. Others needed miraculous healing for themselves or their loved ones. But overall their reasons for following Jesus were misguided and superficial.

John adds (6:3-4): “Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near.” I’m not sure why John reports the detail of Jesus going up on the mountain. But coupled with the mention of the Passover, he may want us to draw a parallel with Moses, who led the people out of Egypt after the Passover. Later, he went up on the mountain receive the Ten Commandments. God also used Moses to give manna to the people in the wilderness. So the mention of the Passover being near is probably more than just a time notice. John wants us to see Jesus as the new and better Moses. He fulfilled what the Passover lamb typified. He gave Himself as the permanent manna or bread of life. He is the Prophet of whom Moses wrote (Deut. 18:15; John 6:14).

But in this case, although Jesus could have called for manna to float down from heaven, He didn’t do that. Why not? Jesus used this miracle and those that follow to train the twelve. John shows this by Jesus asking Philip (6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” The other gospels report that the disciples had asked Jesus to dismiss the multitude so that they could go buy their own food. But Jesus pointedly told the disciples (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Here, John adds (6:6), “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus was showing Philip and the other disciples their woeful inadequacy to meet this need, along with His all-sufficiency. So this miracle teaches us that …

Christ uses inadequate people who surrender what they have to Him to meet the overwhelming needs of others.

Note four main lessons:

1. People are needy.

There were about 20,000 people out in a remote place (Luke 9:12), with many needing healing. They were hungry and there was no place nearby to buy food. Their physical hunger and their inability to satisfy that hunger pictures the spiritual needs of this sinful world. As Jesus will later tell them (6:26-27), they were following Him because they ate their fill of the bread, but they should have been focused on the food that endures to eternal life.

They are typical of so many in this world who are living for material things that will shortly perish, but they don’t see their need for the food that endures to eternal life. While it is right for Christians to engage in ministries of mercy to meet the physical needs of the poor, our ultimate goal should be to introduce them to the Lord, who can save them for eternity. So we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin so that they will see their true need for Christ to rescue them from judgment before they die.

Evangelist Ray Comfort helps people see their need for Christ by walking them through some of God’s commandments that they have broken. He asks, “Have you ever lied or stolen anything?” “Yes.” “What do you call someone who lies and steals?” “A liar and a thief.” “Have you ever taken God’s name in vain?” “Yes.” “The Bible calls that blasphemy. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, and a blasphemer!”

“Have you ever been angry with anyone?” “Yes, many times.” “Jesus said that God views such anger as murder.” “Have you ever looked on someone with lust?” “Yes, of course.” “Jesus said that to do so is to commit adultery in God’s sight. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, a blasphemer, a murderer, and a multiple adulterer! How do you think it will go when you stand before the holy God at the judgment?” It’s only when people see how spiritually needy they are that they will cry out to Jesus to save them.

2. The Lord’s people are inadequate in themselves to meet people’s needs.

As I said, the other gospels report that the disciples’ easy solution to this multitude’s need for food was to send them away so that they could buy their own food (Mark 6:36). Problem solved! Well, at least it was solved as far as the disciples were concerned! But Jesus told them (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Specifically, the Lord asked Philip (John 6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?”

It would have been great if Philip had responded, “Lord, I’ve seen You turn water into wine. I watched You heal the royal official’s son from a distance. I saw you heal the man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. I’ve watched You perform dozens of miracles. Surely, You can provide bread for this hungry multitude, even as God provided manna in the wilderness!” I’d like to think that that’s how I would have responded. Ha!

No, I would have responded just as Philip did. He started calculating, but he calculated without Christ. He did the numbers without considering the Lord’s power and concluded with businesslike efficiency, “Eight months’ salary of a working man (200 denarii) is not sufficient for each one to receive a little.” The problem was, they didn’t have 200 denarii and even if they did, it wasn’t enough. And even if they had more, there weren’t supermarkets just down the road that had enough bread on hand to feed 20,000 hungry people. But how often we throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t do something for the Lord because we calculate based on our inadequate resources!

Then, along comes Andrew who says (6:9), “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish ….” So far so good. But then he adds, “But what are these for so many people?” I’m not sure why Andrew even bothered to bring this boy and his little lunch to Jesus. Maybe the boy had offered and Andrew felt obligated to acknowledge the boy’s good intentions. But his comment, “But what are these for so many people?” seems to reflect his embarrassment to bring this pitiful lunch to Jesus. The loaves were not the size of our loaves of bread. They were small, flat barley cakes, probably about the size of a small pancake. Barley was the food of poor people and animals. The two fish were either pickled or dried small fish, like sardines. But Andrew’s comment accentuates the obvious inadequacy: “What are these for so many people?” So people are needy, but the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs.

3. Jesus Christ is all-sufficient to meet people’s overwhelming needs.

Jeremiah prayed (32:17), “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” If Jesus is the Lord God in human flesh, Creator of heaven and earth, then nothing is too difficult for Him! John brings out Christ’s all-sufficiency in at least five ways:

A. Christ is in control of every situation.

John 6:6: “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus never tested anyone in the sense of tempting them to do wrong. But He does test His servants so that they can learn to trust Him more. As someone has observed, “It was not bread that He was seeking from Philip, but faith.” John’s comment, “for He Himself knew what He was intending to do,” shows that Jesus wasn’t stumped and asking the disciples to brainstorm on how they could solve this perplexing problem. Rather, Jesus was in complete control. No problem that you or I ever face takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wonder, “How in the world am I going to solve this one?”

B. Christ is more concerned for needy people than we are.

The disciples wanted to solve this problem by sending the multitude away to buy their own bread. They were more focused on their own need for a break than they were with the multitude’s need for food. They viewed the hungry multitude as a bother. But Christ was concerned for them. He wants us to learn to look at needy people through His eyes. He has compassion for them and delights to meet their needs.

C. Christ is not limited by our inadequate resources.

When Philip came up with his 200 denarii estimate (that he didn’t have), Jesus didn’t say, “Go take a collection from the crowd and see how much we can get.” When Andrew offered his apology, “But what are these for so many people?” Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll bet there’s more food in this crowd. Let’s get everyone to share!” Jesus wasn’t limited in any way by this meager lunch. And, He isn’t limited today by the fact that we don’t have enough money or time or talent to get the gospel to the whole world. As Watchman Nee put it (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48), “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.”

D. Christ doesn’t just barely meet needs; He abundantly supplies all that we want.

John draws a contrast between Philip’s “for everyone to receive a little” (6:7), Andrew’s “but what are these for so many people?” (6:9), and Jesus’ distributing to the people “as much as they wanted” (6:11). It reminds us of when God sent manna to the Israelites in the desert and we read (Exod. 16:18), “Every man gathered as much as he should eat.” To emphasize the sufficiency of the manna, the text repeats (16:21), “They gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat.” Nobody went hungry. When Jesus fed the 20,000, everyone was satisfied and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Paul wrote (Phil. 4:19), “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

E. Christ is sufficient not only for physical needs, but especially for spiritual needs.

This isn’t just a story about feeding hungry stomachs. This is about the spiritual satisfaction that Jesus brings to all who feed on Him as the bread of life. As He says (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” As Paul put it (Eph. 1:3), God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Are you satisfied with Jesus as your living Bread?

When Jesus was dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples were focused on the physical: “Rabbi, eat the lunch that we brought to You!” But Jesus was focused on the spiritual food of doing His Father’s will. Here, the disciples are still looking at things on the physical plane: How much money will it take to buy bread for this many people? The multitude was also focused on the physical. After this miracle, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make Him king (6:15). “This man can solve our economic problems!” But later (6:26-27), Jesus rebukes them because they were only interested in filling their stomachs. They had no concern about the food that endures to eternal life.

Even so, today people come to Jesus because they need physical healing or they need a job or they need Him to solve some pressing problem. He can meet those needs and He often does. But He wants us to see that we all have a deeper need: We need to be reconciled to the holy God. Jesus provided the only way for that to happen by giving Himself on the cross (6:51). No matter how great your sin may be, Jesus is more than sufficient to forgive your sin and save you from God’s judgment.

So this miracle shows us that people are needy and the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs. But Jesus Christ is powerfully sufficient to meet the needs of all people, especially their need to be reconciled to God. How does He do it?

4. Christ meets the needs of people through His inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.

Briefly, here are four ways that Christ meets needs:

A. Christ uses people to meet the needs of people.

John does not specifically state what the other gospels state, that Jesus used the disciples to distribute the bread and fish to the people. But he does show how Jesus involved Philip and Andrew and it’s only from John that we learn that the five loaves and two fish came from a boy’s lunch. As I said, Jesus easily could have prayed and called down bread from heaven without involving anyone else. But He used people, including a boy and his lunch, to meet the needs of other people. If you know Him, He wants to use you to meet others’ needs.

B. Christ uses inadequate people to meet the needs of people.

Jesus could have looked around the crowd for the obviously rich and appealed to them for the funds to feed the crowd. He could have asked those with plenty of food to share. But instead, He used people who were painfully inadequate to meet this overwhelming need. If you think that you’re adequate or competent to serve the Lord, you’re not ready to serve Him.

Someone asked Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, “Do you really expect to make an impact on that great land?” “No, sir,” Morrison replied, “but I expect God to.” Hudson Taylor, who followed in Morrison’s footsteps, said, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” God only uses inadequate people.

C. Christ uses inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.

The boy had to give up his lunch, not knowing for sure whether he would go hungry or not. He ended up eating more than he gave up! But we can only give to others what we have first received from God ourselves. We can’t give and the Lord won’t use the 200 denarii that we don’t have. But He will use the inadequate resources that we do have if we yield them to Him. What has the Lord given you? Remember, it was the slave who only had one talent who buried it and didn’t use it for his master. If you think that you’re just a “one-talent” Christian, make sure that you yield it to Christ and use it for His purpose.

D. When Christ uses you to meet the needs of others, He always provides a basketful of leftovers for your needs.

Unlike the manna, which spoiled if they gathered too much, in this miracle the Lord directed the disciples to gather the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted. We should learn from this to be frugal with what the Lord supplies. Even though He can provide far more than we need, we shouldn’t waste it. But this also shows how the Lord provides for those who serve Him. There were 12 disciples and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.

We hear a lot about “burnout” today, especially among pastors and missionaries. While we all need adequate rest and time off, if we’re feeling burned out in serving the Lord, it’s likely that we’ve been trying to meet others’ needs in our own strength. We’re trying to feed the multitude with the 200 denarii that we don’t have, and it isn’t sufficient even for everyone to have a little. But if we come away tired, yes, but with the satisfaction of the fullness of Christ in our souls, then the Lord’s blessing was on us. Remember, the bread is a picture of Christ. When we yield to Him our inadequate abilities and gifts to use as He pleases, He will satisfy us with a full measure of Himself. We’ll have food to eat that others know nothing about (John 4:32).

Conclusion

I have two concerns in this message. First, if you’ve never tasted Christ as the living bread to give you eternal life, then that is your main need. Your main need is not for Jesus to heal you or give you a job or provide you with a mate. Your main need is to come to Jesus for eternal life. Just as you eat bread to sustain your physical life even though you don’t understand exactly how it works, so you need to trust in Christ for eternal life. He promises (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and He who believes in Me will never thirst.”

Second, if you have trusted in Christ, my concern is that you offer yourself to Him to use to meet the needs of others. We always have many ministry needs in the church. Some are behind the scenes, servant-type jobs. But also, the Lord wants to use you to give out the bread of life to others, whether to fellow believers or to those who don’t know the Savior. Don’t live for yourself. Live to be used of God and you’ll be satisfied with a basket full of the Living Bread for yourself.

Application Questions

  1. Since there are so many needs in the world, how do you know where to devote your time, effort, and money?
  2. When is it right to say “no” to the demands of needy people?
  3. How do spiritual gifts fit in with service? How do you know if God wants to use you in an area you aren’t gifted in?
  4. Are there conditions that we must meet in order to experience God’s blessing? What are they?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 32: Growing to Know the Lord for Who He Is (John 6:14-21)

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October 27, 2013

Many people come to Christ in the hopes that He will make them happy. They struggle with personal problems and they hear that Jesus can help, so they trust in Him to gain the peace and joy that they long for. Or, they’re in an unhappy marriage or having problems with their kids and they heard that Christ can help, so they decided to “try Christ.” Whatever the need, they want Christ to make them happy.

But after they come to Christ, they find that the problems get worse, not better. Things aren’t exactly like the salesman—I mean evangelist—promised! They feel like when you sign up for some offer, only to find that it was a bait and switch. If you had known what you were in for, you never would have signed up.

As I’ve often said, the crucial question in life to answer is Jesus’ question to the disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Scriptures show Him to be, then we must follow Him as Savior and Lord, even if it results in being tortured and killed. The Bible is quite clear that many godly saints have suffered terribly because of their faith. In fact, Paul promises (2 Tim. 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The main reason for following Christ is not because He can make you happy—although He can, even in your suffering—but because He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the eternal Son of God, sent from the Father to provide the only way to heaven through His death and resurrection.

Thus, as we’ve seen, John wrote his Gospel, and especially the miracles or signs that Jesus did (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” It’s important that we believe in Jesus for the right reasons and that we grow to know Him as He is, not as we might wish for Him to be.

John (and Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52) follows the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, but he gives a compressed version of the story. For example, John doesn’t tell us that Jesus compelled the disciples to get into the boat. He doesn’t tell us that Jesus sent the multitude away or that He was praying on the mountain. He omits Mark’s comment (6:48) that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars or that He intended to pass them by when He came to them on the water. He doesn’t say that the disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost (although he does say that they were frightened). He doesn’t mention Peter’s walking on the water (Matt. 14:28-31). He doesn’t tell us that the storm was instantly stilled when Jesus got into the boat. And it’s puzzling why John, who wants us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, omits the disciples’ worshipful response, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (Matt. 14:33).

Also, John doesn’t offer any comment on why he includes this story. He just gives it in this compressed form and then the following narrative goes back to the feeding of the 5,000, as Jesus expounds on His being the bread of life. So you have to ask, “Why did John include this sign in his Gospel? What does he want us to take away from meditating on it?”

One clue to these questions is what John told us back in 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John reports this miracle so that we, too, will see Jesus’ glory and trust Him in life’s storms. Also, this miracle was private; only the disciples saw it. Thus it was for their training (and ours).

We’re not reading too much into this story to say that the disciples were confused and disappointed with Jesus’ response to the multitude after He fed them with the loaves and fish. (R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord [Baker], p. 173, and G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John [Revell], pp. 102-103, point this out.) The crowd proclaimed Him to be the prophet of whom Moses spoke and they wanted to take Him by force and make Him king (John 6:14-15). The disciples had placed all of their hopes in this Galilean carpenter-prophet as the promised Messiah-King, who would deliver His people. They had given up their livelihoods to follow Him. Jesus has sent them out on a mission to proclaim that the kingdom of God was at hand. They were expecting Him to establish that kingdom at any moment.

And now, after Jesus has shown Himself to be the new Moses by providing bread for this crowd in the wilderness, the people want to make Him king. This was what the disciples had been waiting for!

But rather than capitalizing on the mood of the crowd and moving ahead with their desire to see Him enthroned, Jesus forced the disciples to get into the boat and head back toward Capernaum, while He sent the multitude away and went up on the mountain by Himself. What was He thinking? And then, to make matters worse, after Jesus forced them to get in the boat and put out on the lake without Him, a strong wind came up against them. They had already been in one storm on that lake when Jesus had been asleep in the boat with them. He woke up, rebuked the storm, and the sea was instantly calm. But now He wasn’t even with them!

So it’s reasonable to assume that the disciples were confused and disappointed as they were trying to row against this storm. Here they were, trying to help bring in God’s promised kingdom and to help people see that Jesus is the promised Messiah-king. In obedience to Jesus, they had set out across the lake without Him. But now, they were caught in this storm. In that setting, Jesus came to them walking on the water to teach them that even though He wasn’t the kind of Messiah-king they may have hoped for, He still is the Lord of all creation. They needed to get to know Him as He is, not as they had hoped that He would be. The lesson for us is:

Jesus does not want followers who use Him for their own purposes, but followers who grow to know Him and trust Him for who He is.

1. Jesus does not want followers who have misconceptions about who He is, who use Him for their own purposes (6:14-15).

John 6:14-15: “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.”

Moses was the revered leader who had led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Through him, God gave the law and provided manna in the wilderness. If Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses had prophesied (Deut. 18:15), then maybe He could deliver Israel from Roman domination! Maybe He could usher in God’s kingdom where Israel would enjoy peace and prosperity. So they wanted to make Him their political king.

But they didn’t want to repent of their sin and submit to Him as Lord. Rather, they wanted a king who would improve their living situation. They wanted a king who would usher in peace and prosperity. In short, they had misconceptions about who Jesus is and they wanted to use Him for their own purposes.

Even the disciples fell into this wrong way of thinking about Jesus, as you know. Right after Jesus asked them that crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus told them that He had to go to Jerusalem, where He would suffer many things, be killed, and be raised up on the third day. But (Matt. 16:22), “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But Jesus rebuked Peter (16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Peter had a wrong conception of Jesus that didn’t include the cross.

I hope that that doesn’t describe you, but it would not be uncommon if it describes some of you. One Sunday several years ago a woman who was visiting here for the first time came up for prayer after the service. She and her husband had moved here for a good job that she had been offered. But after a short while on the job, she had been terminated. She was very angry at God for leading them here, only to lose her job. I wasn’t able to help her see that this trial was from God’s loving hand for their good, but that she needed to trust Him, submit to Him, and even give Him thanks for this opportunity to grow in her faith. She had misconceptions about who Christ is and she wanted to use Him for her own happiness. When that didn’t work out as she envisioned, she grew angry and bitter.

2. Jesus wants followers who grow to know Him and trust Him for who He is.

In Isaiah 55:8-9, the Lord says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Part of growing to know the Lord is growing to know His ways and to submit thankfully to His ways when they run counter to my ways. One test of whether I am truly submitting to God’s ways with me is whether I am grumbling or giving thanks when things don’t go the way that I wanted them to go. If I’m trying to use Him then I’m acting as lord and He’s just my servant. Biblical Christianity means that I submit joyfully to Him as Lord and I’m His servant. John’s account of Christ’s walking on the water brings out five ways that we grow to know and trust Jesus for who He is:

A. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ person through the trials that He puts us through.

John tells us that Jesus withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone. The disciples got into the boat and started to cross the sea without Him. John adds the puzzling statement (6:17), “It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” Not all agree, but I take it to mean that John anticipates the rest of the story: Jesus would shortly come, but He hadn’t yet come. So the disciples were on the lake in the dark in this storm, without Jesus.

Not only was Jesus not with them, He also let them struggle against this storm for many hours. John says that they had rowed “25 or 30 stadia,” which was about three and a half miles. The other gospels say that it was in the fourth watch of the night (between 3-6 a.m.) that Jesus came to them. They were probably exhausted and perhaps wondering whether they should turn around and let the wind blow them back to their starting point. At that point of great need, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.

If we could interview John as he recalled this event, he would probably say, “It was an awful thing to be on the lake in the dark in a storm for that long without Jesus in the boat. But if He had not sent us into that situation, we would not have seen His glory and power when He came to us, walking on the water. The fresh vision of who Jesus is made it worth all the toil and anxiety.”

Although such trials are never enjoyable at the moment, as the author of Hebrews tells us (12:11), “Yet to those who have been trained by it [the trials of God’s discipline], afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” The late Malcolm Muggeridge wrote (A Twentieth Century Testimony [Thomas Nelson], cited in Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1991, p. 158):

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, everything I have learned, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.

Also, that storm kept them from joining the crowd in their error of wanting to make Jesus a political king. I think that when we’re in heaven, we’ll look back and see many instances in our lives where some trial or situation that didn’t go as we had wished actually kept us from some temptation that we would have fallen into. If I may use a rather homely personal example, when I was a teenager, I had a bad case of acne. Also, like most teenage boys, I struggled a lot with lust. I’ve thought that maybe the Lord used my bad complexion to keep me from getting involved immorally with girls at that vulnerable time of my life.

So one result of this miracle was that through it, the disciples grew to know Jesus’ person in a way that they never would have if they had not been in this storm. Jesus often sends us into storms so that we will grow in our understanding of who He is when He comes to us in a powerful way in the midst of the storm.

B. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ purpose in the trials He puts us through.

A. W. Pink (Exposition of the Gospel of John, on monergism.com) points out that these people proclaimed Jesus as their prophet and were willing to make Him their king. But they were omitting the other office that must come before He is crowned as king: He is the priest, who offered Himself as the final sacrifice for our sins. The disciples did not learn that lesson until after the cross and resurrection. But this miracle was one of the many times that Jesus had to repeat this lesson before it finally sank in.

One of the main lessons of the Christian life is that God’s purpose is not centered on me and my glory. It’s about Jesus and His glory! God’s purpose is to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To that end, He is working all things in our lives for His glory. Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought he was working all things to­gether for my good, as Romans 8:28 says.” He is, but your greatest good is bound up with Jesus’ glory. Your greatest good and your ultimate glory is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29-30). When we’re perfectly conformed to His image in heaven, it will be to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).

C. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ providence in the trials He puts us through.

The disciples here went from the mountaintop experience of the feeding of the 5,000 to the valley of the violent storm as they struggled to cross the sea without Jesus being with them. Just as Jesus knew what He would do with the feeding of the 5,000 (6:6), so He knew that He was sending the disciples into a storm and that He would come to them to calm their fears and to increase their understanding of who He is. Mark 6:48 says that Jesus saw them as they rowed against the winds. They were at least 3-4 miles away, so Mark is referring to Jesus’ omniscience. Also, Jesus had to know exactly where they were on the stormy sea to walk to them. They thought that they were alone, but they were really not alone. They learned that even though they didn’t know it, Jesus was fully aware of their circumstances and He would come to them in His time. And, as the other gospels state, He was praying for them while He was on the mountain. But they didn’t know that until later.

God’s providence means that nothing happens to us apart from His sovereign, loving will. Jesus isn’t asleep in heaven; He is there praying for us, even as He was praying for the disciples while they were fighting against this storm. In His perfect time, He will come to us. But we’ve got to trust Him when we can’t see Him or figure out any reason for why we’re in the storm.

D. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ power in the trials He puts us through.

The disciples had just seen Jesus create bread and fish to feed the large crowd. Now they saw Him as the Lord over His creation, as He walked on the water. Our trials cannot prevent Him from coming to us, even if we can’t imagine how He will do it.

At the same time, it is not always His will to use His power to deliver us from trials. Here, He stilled the storm and the disciples got safely to the shore. But He didn’t deliver John the Baptist from Herod’s sword. He didn’t call legions of angels to spare Himself from the cross. He later delivered Peter from prison, but not James. As Hebrews 11:33-37 shows, by faith many experienced powerful deliverances from their trials, but also by faith others were tortured and suffered martyr’s deaths. But whether it’s God’s will to deliver us or to take us to glory through death, we should know and trust His mighty power in the trials He puts us through.

E. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ presence in the trials He puts us through.

One of John’s main emphases in recounting this miracle is that Jesus’ presence with them in the boat got them immediately to their destination (6:21). This may have been another miracle or John may mean that with Jesus in the boat, they quickly got to their destination (solid commentators hold to both views). But at any rate, Jesus’ presence with the disciples calmed their fears in this storm. As Jesus says (6:20), “It is I; do not be afraid.” When we experience Jesus’ presence in the middle of life’s storms, it calms our fears.

“It is I” is literally, in Greek, “I am.” Some commentators say that this is the only way that a person could identify himself in Greek, so Jesus is not claiming to be Yahweh, who identified Himself to Moses as “I am” (Exod. 3:14). But perhaps John, in light of his overall purpose, wants his readers to at least see a hint of this here. It is obviously Jesus’ point in John 8:58, where He says, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” Because of who He is, Jesus’ presence with us gives us comfort.

When the Lord gave the Great Commission, He also gave the reassuring promise (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That was David Livingstone’s verse as he endured countless hardships in the 19th century, trying to open the interior of Africa to the gospel. He said (A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 107), “On those words I staked everything, and they never failed! … It is the word of a gentleman of the most strict and sacred honor, so there’s an end of it!”

Conclusion

So, why do you follow Jesus? Is it so that you can use Him to make you happy? Or, is it because He is the sovereign Lord of creation, who demands your submission and loyalty, even if His ways are not what you expected?

Another underlying current of this story is Christ’s patience and grace toward the disciples. Mark (6:51-52) reports that they had not gained any insight from the feeding of the 5,000. Later, they were still clueless about how to feed the 4,000 (Mark 8:4, 16-21). But the Lord did not give up on them. Even though we’re slow to learn, He is gracious with us as we struggle to know Him and trust Him for who He is. Even when things do not go as you expected or hoped, you can know that Jesus is still the Lord over all. Through your trials you can grow to know His person, His purpose, His providence, His power, and His presence. You will look back and say, “The storm was worth it because I grew to know more of who Jesus really is!”

Application Questions

  1. How can we keep our prayers from turning into idolatry, where we use “God” to get what we want?
  2. Since it is not always God’s will to deliver us from trials, is it wrong to pray for deliverance? What else should we pray for?
  3. Why doesn’t the Lord protect those who are seeking to serve Him from difficult trials?
  4. How can we grow to experience God’s presence with us in all situations? How would this affect our behavior and emotions?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Discipleship, Faith, Spiritual Life

Lesson 33: Seeking Jesus Rightly (John 6:22-36)

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November 3, 2013

What are you seeking for in life? We all seek happiness, but where are you looking for that happiness? Some think that they will find it in financial success or a satisfying career, and so they devote themselves to those pursuits. Others think that they will find happiness in sex. They become enslaved to pornography, or they go from one partner to the next. Many try to find that pleasure in alcohol or drugs, only to destroy their lives. Some seek happiness through marriage and children. While a happy family is a blessing from God, it should never become our main source for happiness, because we can easily lose it through death. And often our families can be the source of great pain. As Solomon makes clear in Ecclesiastes, any earthly thing that you seek to satisfy the inner void is like chasing soap bubbles. You catch one only to have it burst in your hand.

The Bible is clear that our ultimate source of happiness and pleasure is found only in God. David wrote (Ps. 16:11), “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” Jesus told the disciples (John 15:11), “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” We will find fullness of joy and pleasures forever when we seek God.

A. W. Tozer begins his spiritual classic, The Pursuit of God ([Christian Publications], p. 11), by pointing out “that before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man.” As Paul says (Rom. 3:11), “There is none who seeks for God.” Tozer adds (ibid.), “We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit.” Thus we can’t take credit for our pursuit of God.

And yet at the same time, the Bible clearly exhorts everyone, including the ungodly, to seek the Lord. Isaiah 55:6-7 calls to us,

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

So there is a mystery here: no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44), and yet we are commanded to come to Jesus and to seek Him diligently. We begin by seeking Him for the mercy of salvation and we keep seeking Him for the grace to live in a manner pleasing to Him. It’s a lifelong quest. The prophet Hosea said (6:3), “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” The apostle Paul echoes that (Phil. 3:7-11), where he says that he has counted all of his former gains as loss for the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Even though he had known Christ for about 25 years when he wrote that letter, he admits that he had not yet attained what he desired. Then he added (Phil. 3:14), “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Tozer put it like this (ibid., p. 14, 17),

Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking…. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.

In our text (John 6:24), many of the people whom Jesus had fed with the loaves and fish “came to Capernaum seeking Jesus.” The morning after the miracle, they couldn’t find Jesus. They knew that He had not left in the boat with the disciples and that there had not been any other boats there the night before. But they couldn’t find Him. So when some small boats from Tiberias came there, these people got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. Their question when they found Him (6:25), “Rabbi, when did You get here?” shows that they couldn’t figure out how He got there because they didn’t know about His walking on the water to the disciples.

Jesus could have replied, “I got here early this morning after I walked on the water to the disciples and joined them in the boat.” That answer would have caused some jaws to drop! But Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, He confronted them because even though they had gone to a good bit of trouble to seek Him, they were seeking Him wrongly. They sought Him because they wanted a political Messiah to bring peace and prosperity. By reversing their negative example into a positive one, we can learn how to seek Jesus rightly:

Seek Jesus for the right reason, by the right route, and through the right relationship to give you eternal life.

These Jews were seeking Jesus for the wrong reason: They wanted Him to provide them with material comfort, not with eternal life (6:22-27). They were seeking by the wrong route: works, not faith (6:28-29). And, they were seeking Jesus as the new Moses, to provide them with what they wanted, but not as the satisfying bread of life whom they could know personally (6:30-36).

1. Seek Jesus for the right reason: Desire eternal food, not temporal food (6:22-27).

Jesus confronts the multitude (John 6:26): “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” He means that they had missed the true significance of the miracle that He had just performed. Rightly understood, the miracle of the loaves and fish should have turned them to Christ as their Messiah, who could satisfy their spiritual hunger for time and eternity. But, as one commentator put it (Lange, cited by F. Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 2:18), “Instead of seeing in the bread the sign, they had seen in the sign only the bread.” Their minds were on the temporal and material, rather than on the eternal and spiritual. They wanted their stomachs filled, but they weren’t seeking Jesus for eternal life. They had no sense of their sin or their need to be reconciled to the holy God. They sought Jesus only for what He could do for them materially.

Jesus’ words here obviously refute the popular heresy that it is God’s will for every Christian to be financially prosperous. The false teachers who promote this damnable teaching are preying on people’s greed. Sadly, this teaching is rampant in many poor countries, as well as in the United States. It deceives people into thinking that their real need is more money, when in fact their real need is the eternal life that Jesus offers. So, Jesus becomes Aladdin’s Genie to help you get what you want out of life. But He isn’t the Savior from sin, who satisfies your soul whether you are rich or poor, living in a nice home or locked up in a cold prison cell.

So Jesus exhorts (6:27), “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Jesus doesn’t mean that you should quit your job and take a vow of poverty. The Bible commends hard work and commands us to provide adequately for our families (Col. 3:23; 1 Tim. 5:8). It does not condemn having earthly riches, although it does warn about the dangers of riches (1 Tim. 6:8-10, 17-19).

Rather, Jesus is showing us by way of contrast where to put our focus. As He said in Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Or, as Jesus graphically illustrated with the parable of the man who wanted to build bigger barns to store his wealth, but who died that very night, to end up rich in this world’s goods, but to die poor toward God, is a huge mistake (Luke 12:15-21). We should not be so caught up with working to put food on the table that we neglect working for “the food which endures to eternal life.”

I’ll comment more on this when we look at 6:28-29, but note the irony of Jesus’ statement that we should work for this food that endures to eternal life, and yet at the same time, the Son of Man gives it to us. It’s the same as when Jesus exhorted His hearers (Luke 13:24), “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Or (Matt. 11:12), “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” There is a lot of effort involved in “striving” and “taking the kingdom by force.” And yet at the same time, Jesus gives living water to the spiritually thirsty and the true bread of eternal life to the hungry (John 4:10; 6:27, 32, 35).

What does it mean to work “for the food which endures to eternal life”? J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:347) sums it up well:

How are we to labor? There is but one answer. We must labor in the use of all appointed means. We must read our Bibles, like men digging for hidden treasure. We must wrestle earnestly in prayer, like men contending with a deadly enemy for life. We must take our whole heart to the house of God, and worship and hear like those who listen to the reading of a benefactor’s will. We must fight daily against sin, the world, and the devil, like those who fight for liberty, and must conquer, or be slaves. These are the ways we must walk in if we would find Christ, and be found of Him. This is “laboring.” This is the secret of getting on about our souls.

As always, Ryle cuts to the quick! Evaluate yourself in light of his words and put them into action. Figure out how to rearrange your busy schedule so that you take the time and effort to work for the food which endures to eternal life.”

Before we leave these verses, note three important truths here about Jesus. First, Jesus knows your motives. He saw right through this crowd that was seeking Him for the wrong reasons and He lovingly confronted and exhorted them in the way they needed to change. When Jesus confronts your wrong motives through His Word, pay attention and respond with repentance. He’s doing it because He loves you, not to hurt you.

Second, Jesus gives spiritual food to those who seek Him properly. He could not do this if He were not God. He knows exactly what you need to grow in Him and He will give it to you when you diligently seek Him for it.

Third, Jesus is God’s only approved source of spiritual blessing. He says (6:27b), “For on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” A seal in that day authenticated a document and showed that the owner of the seal approved of it (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 359). D. A. Carson explains (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 284), “The idea is that God has certified the Son as his own agent, authorizing him as the one who alone can bestow this food.” So don’t fall prey to any false teaching that diminishes the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Seek Him for the food that endures to eternal life.

2. Seek Jesus by the right route: by faith, not by works (6:28-29).

John 6:28-29: “Therefore they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” Their question picks up on Jesus’ command not to work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life (6:27). John Calvin explains (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 243), “By the works of God we must understand those which God demands, and of which he approves.”

Again, Jesus is using irony here. He does not mean that faith is a meritorious work on our part that somehow commends us to God. The Bible is clear that faith itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). Rather, Jesus is picking up on their question about works and saying, in effect, “The only ‘work’ that you can do is not to work, but rather to believe in Me, the one whom the Father has sent to provide salvation through My death and resurrection.” As Calvin again explains (ibid., p. 245),

Now faith brings nothing to God, but, on the contrary, places man before God as empty and poor, that he may be filled with Christ and with his grace. It is, therefore, if we may be allowed the expression, a passive work, to which no reward can be paid, and it bestows on man no other righteousness than that which he receives from Christ.

Seeking to be right with God by works rather than by faith alone is probably the most common spiritual error in the world. All false religions, including some that go under the label of “Christian,” teach a works-approach to salvation. They may teach that we are saved by faith, but not by faith alone, but by faith plus works. But if that is true, then we have grounds for boasting in ourselves. And, the question is, how many works do you have to add to your faith to be saved? The Bible is clear that those who are saved by faith in Christ always produce good works as a result (Eph. 2:8-10; James 2:14-26). But it is faith in Christ alone that saves. As Paul put it (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

So to seek Jesus and the food that endures to eternal life, come to Him as a guilty, helpless sinner and trust entirely in what He did for you when He died on the cross. If you want to fly somewhere, you’ve got to entrust yourself totally to the pilot and the airplane. It would be ridiculous to insist on going into the cockpit and helping the pilot fly the plane, especially if you are not a trained pilot. Even so, it’s crazy to tell God that you’re going to help Jesus save you by your good works when He has said that He will save all that trust in Him. Don’t trust in your own good works to justify you when you stand before God someday. Rather (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

Thus there is nothing more important to seek for in life than to seek for Jesus and the eternal life that He can give. Seek Him for the right reason: you need eternal food, not temporal food. Seek Him by the right route: by faith and not by works.

3. Seek Jesus through the right relationship: Hunger for Him to satisfy your soul (6:30-36).

These Jews, who have just the day before eaten the miraculous loaves and fish, ask Jesus an incredible question (6:30): “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?” They go on (6:31) to mention that their fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. Behind this request for a sign was the Jewish expectation that when the Messiah came, He would renew the miracle of the manna (Morris, p. 361).

So in spite of Jesus’ miraculous feeding the 20,000, they’re asking for more: Jesus fed a large crowd; Moses fed the entire nation. Jesus did it once; Moses did it for 40 years. Jesus provided ordinary bread; Moses gave them “bread out of heaven.” So they’re saying, “Okay, Jesus, you gave us a little sign. Let’s see You do a big one, like Moses did! Then we’ll believe in You!” Ryle (pp. 361-362) astutely comments,

They were always deceiving themselves with the idea that they wanted more evidence and pretending that if they had this evidence they would believe. Thousands in every age do just the same…. The plain truth is that it is lack of heart, not lack of evidence, that keeps people back from Christ.

Jesus responds by correcting them. He says (6:32-33), “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” He is saying, first, that it wasn’t Moses who gave them the manna; God did. And, second, the manna wasn’t the true bread, because people who ate it still died. But Jesus, whom God sent, gives eternal life to the world, that is, to all people everywhere who believe in Him.

The Jews’ reply focuses on the material, “Lord, always give us this bread.” (“Lord” here should properly be translated, “Sir.” They were not acknowledging Jesus to be Lord, as 6:36 makes plain. They just wanted Jesus to be their free meal ticket.) Jesus’ reply tells them who the true bread is and how to get it (6:35): “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” This is the first of seven “I am” metaphors in John (8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). I’ll say more next time, but for now note what an astounding claim this is. Jesus is saying that He is the source of eternal life and the sustainer of that life for whoever comes to Him and believes in Him.

These Jews were satisfied with their religion and rituals that had come down to them from Moses, so they had no hunger for the living bread that Jesus offered. Before you are hungry to eat of the living bread God has to open your eyes to your true condition: Without Christ you are spiritually starving. In Christ’s day, bread was the main staple in their diet. You could not live without bread. In the same way, you cannot live eternally in the presence of the holy God without Jesus Christ. The Father sent Jesus to this world to bear the sins of all who believe in Him. Without Him, you’re under God’s righteous judgment.

“Coming to Jesus” and “believing in Jesus” are parallel here. They explain what Jesus means in 6:53 when He talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. It means to trust in Jesus’ death as the complete and final payment for your sins. Jesus says that the result of coming to Him is that we will not hunger and the result of believing in Him is that we will never thirst. This does not mean that we will not still long to know more and more of the riches of Christ. Rather, it means that when we truly believe in Jesus, we are satisfied with Him. We have all spiritual blessings in Him (Eph. 1:3). We are complete in Him (Col. 2:10).

Conclusion

Sadly, these Jews were seeking Jesus for the wrong reason: They wanted Him to provide for their material needs, but they didn’t see their spiritual needs. They sought Jesus by the wrong route: works, but not faith. They sought Him through the wrong relationship: They wanted Him to be the new Moses, the new political leader to bring in peace and prosperity, but they didn’t want to come to Him personally in faith to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Jesus states the tragic result (6:36): They had seen Him and yet they did not believe.

What are you seeking for in life? Jesus is the only one who can provide true soul satisfaction, both in this life and for eternity. But perhaps you’re seeking Jesus wrongly: You want Him to provide for your temporal needs, but you don’t sense your desperate spiritual need for Him as the living bread to give you eternal life. Even worse, maybe you aren’t seeking Jesus at all. You’re a heartbeat away from standing before God in judgment, and yet you don’t even see your desperate condition. Cry out to God to open your eyes to your greatest need. Come to Jesus and you will not hunger. Believe in Him and you will never thirst.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help unbelievers to see that their main need is for eternal life, not for temporal goods or pleasures?
  2. A Roman Catholic friend argues that James 2:14-26 proves that we must add our works to faith in order to be saved. How would you answer him? What Scriptures would you use?
  3. To do well in a demanding career, you must devote much time and effort to it. How does John 6:27 apply in this situation?
  4. Reread J. C. Ryle’s comments (pp. 3-4) on how we should labor for the food that endures to eternal life. How can you best apply his prescription?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Set Your Heart Upon Your Ways (Haggai 1)

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After many long years in exile, a remnant of the Jewish people returned to Israel eager to resume life in the promised land. Their first order of business? To rebuild the Temple of the Lord. But after nearly twenty years, the Temple still lay in ruins and the people had entered a period of despair and decline. At that time, the prophet Haggai stepped onto the scene with a surprising message that re-centered the people's priorities. Nearly 2500 years later, Haggai's first sermon remains just as fresh in an age of misplaced priorities and endless busyness.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 8: The Study of the Holy Spirit

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You might as well try to hear without ears or breathe without lungs, as try to live a Christian life without the Spirit of God in your heart. ― D. L. Moody

Introduction

Someone once articulated that the average church member’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is so vague it is nearly non-existent. Imagine a conversation with a Jehovah witness (JW); it might go something like this. JW: The word Trinity never appears in the Bible and is a myth. Christian: While you are correct that the word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible the Bible teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate persons but one God. JW: The Holy Spirit is merely God’s “active force”1 kind of like electricity but not a separate person. Christian: Really! I am not sure; that doesn’t sound right. I will have to get back to you on that.

Whether we know it or like it or not non-trininitarian groups are confronting Christians with such issues like this every day in person and in writings posted on the internet. A Unitarian website tries to convincingly offer thirty four “biblical” and historical reasons why the Holy Spirit is not a person.2

The study of the Holy Spirit in theological terminology is called pneumatology. The study of the Holy Spirit raises certain basic questions. Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the biblical evidence for the personhood of the Spirit? What did the Holy Spirit do in regard to creation and revelation? What is the Holy Spirit’s role in a person’s conversion and sanctification? What about spiritual gifts? These are some of the issues that this lesson is going to cover.

The Personhood and Deity of the Spirit

First things first. The Holy Spirit is a member of the Trinity and as such is a person. The Spirit has attributes that only a person could have. He has intelligence (1 Cor 2:10-13), feelings (Eph 4:30), and a will (1 Cor 12:11; Acts 16:6-12). He prays (Rom 8:26). He does miracles (Acts 8:39). He can be lied to (Acts 5:3). He can be insulted (Heb 10:29). He teaches and directs (John 14:26; Acts 8:29; Rom 8:14). Let’s look at two of these examples. In 1 Cor 12:11 Paul describes the Holy’s Spirit’s role in distributing spiritual gifts: “It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things” (1 Cor 12:11). Here the Holy Spirit is seen “deciding” what gifts to gift to each person. In other words, the Holy Spirit has a will, which is one characteristic of a person. In Acts 5:3 the Holy Spirit is directly equated with God. Here in the early formation of the church Peter is rebuking two individuals who state that they had given more than they actually had: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). Notice two aspects about these verses. The first is that the Holy Spirit is lied to. This means that the Holy Spirit is personal. You cannot lie to a table or to electricity because it is not a person. The second aspect is that lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God. This means that the Holy Spirit is God.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament: Creation, Revelation and Filling

In the very first verses of the Bible the Holy Spirit is seen as involved in the creation of the universe. There we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water” (Gen 1:1-2). In another place Elihu says to Job: The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4 cf. Gen 2:7). In fact the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach) can also be translated as breath or wind. The same is true in Greek (pneuma) in the Greek Old Testament and Greek New Testament. The significance of this is that breath is what gives life to a body.

In regard to the revelation of God’s word the Holy Spirit also has a role. In citing Psalm 2 Peter and John state “Master, who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things” (Acts 4:25). Here the Psalm is said to be by the Holy Spirit though David. The human author David is described as the intermediate source of the message while the Holy Spirit is the source that channeled it to him. In citing Psalm 95, similarly the author of Hebrews states, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! (Heb 3:7). In this passage even though the Psalmist writes the message the Holy Spirit “says” it.

In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit filled individuals for various kinds of service and in some cases this filling is explicitly seen as temporary. A good example of the temporary nature of the filling of the Spirit in the Old Testament occurred in the life of Israel’s first king, Saul. The record of it starts in the book of First Samuel: “Then the spirit of God rushed upon Saul and he prophesied among them” (1 Sam10:9). But later after Saul’s disobedience to God the Spirit of God departed from him: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had turned away from [departed] Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1 Sam 16:14). Apparently, the next King of Israel, David, learned from Saul’s example. After David’s sin of adultery (and murder) with Bathsheba he recorded a prayer found in Psalm 51, “Do not reject me! Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me” (Ps 51:11). David did not want what happened to Saul happen to him. However, a temporary filling of the Spirit seen in the Old Testament era should not be confused with the baptism of the Spirit in the church age (Acts 2). This baptism is a permanent act of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. So Christians can be assured that the Holy Spirit will not be taken from them (cf. Eph 1:13-14).

The Work of the Holy Spirit in regard to Man’s Salvation

The Bible also describes the Holy Spirit as very active in man’s salvation. In fact, the Spirit is indispensable for anyone to be saved. His work can be divided into three general categories of activity: his pre-conversion work, conversion work and post-conversion work.

The Pre-Conversion Work of the Holy Spirit

Prior to anyone placing his or her faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is involved in setting the conditions that allow for someone’s faith response to the gospel. One of these roles is the convicting of sin and truth. John states, “And He (The Helper = Holy Spirit), when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:8-10; NASB). One could supplement this idea with the concept that the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals though the preaching of the gospel. Paul writes to the Thessalonians “our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:5).3

The Conversion Work of the Holy Spirit

Regeneration may be defined as “the impartation of new life” or “the washing of the new birth.” This washing and new life is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The primary verse that supports this is from Paul’s letter to Titus. He states, “He [God] saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). While some theologians place regeneration prior to faith which results in conversion, it’s probably better to see regeneration as equated to conversion itself. In Acts Peter states, "Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Here, the gift of the Holy Spirit is conditioned upon repentance in relation to the gospel preaching of Peter.

Upon conversion the believer in Jesus Christ is said to be baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. This baptism is a one time event in which metaphorically speaking Christ becomes our head and we are joined with believers as fellow members of the body. Paul states, “For in [or by] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). This baptism forms our union with Christ and with fellow believers. Related to the baptism of the Spirit is the indwelling of the Spirit. Upon and after conversion, the Holy Spirit indwells the life of the believer. Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). In the book of Romans Paul adds, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9). One could say that the indwelling Spirit is the definition of a Christian.

Believers, who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, are also sealed with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation) – when you believed in Christ – you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Sealing communicates God’s mark of permanent ownership on us. The Holy Spirit is also described in these verses as a pledge or down payment that insures that God will complete his salvific work in us.

Spiritual Gifts

Lastly, every person who has been born again receives a spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit. Paul writes: “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all” (1 Cor 12:4, 7). This leads us to the very large topic of spiritual gifts and their use in the life of a believer. In some cases unfortunately this is a topic comes with a lot of questions and even controversy. Lists of spiritual gifts occur in Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The gifts are listed in the order in which they are given.

Romans 12

1 Corinthians

Ephesians 4

Prophecy

apostle

 

apostle

Service

prophet

 

prophet

Teaching

teacher

evangelist

Exhortation

miracles

pastor

Contributing

gifts of healing

teacher4

Leadership

helps

 

Mercy

gifts of leadership

 

 

different kinds of tongues

 

 

message of wisdom

 

 

message of knowledge

 

 

faith

 

 

interpretation of tongues

 

 

discernment of spirits

 

We can begin the process of studying spiritual gifts by describing points of clarity and agreement from 1 Corinthians 12-14. The first point is that each Christian has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:7). It’s not that some Christians have gifts and some don’t. Second, it’s the Holy Spirit who decides what gift(s) he gives to each person. We may want to have one gift or another but it’s the Holy Spirit who decides on the distribution (1 Cor 12:7-9). It’s not what we want but rather what he wants. Thirdly, gifts are to be used for the “benefit of all” (1 Cor 12:7). Gifts are not given primarily for the benefit of the gift holder but rather as a ministry for others. Spiritual gifts are not to be self-focused but rather others focused. Fourthly, not all people have the same gift. This is Paul’s point at the end of 1 Cor 12 where he asks a series of questions where the expected answer is no.5 For example, “Not all speak in tongues do they?” The answer is that no not all have the gift of tongues. Lastly, gifts are to be exercised in love. As Paul states, exercising gifts without love is like an annoyance of banging gongs or symbols (1 Cor 13:1).

Most evangelical Christians are at least somewhat aware that there are questions and points of difference and disagreement regarding spiritual gifts. For example, is God giving all gifts today, such as the gift of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, or healing? The gifts of apostleship and prophecy are foundational to the church and on which the church is built. Paul writes regarding the church “you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (Eph 2:20; cf. Heb 2:3-4). One criteria of apostle in the early church is that the person saw the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1). Unless Christ made a special appearance as he did to Paul on the road to Damascus this criteria would not be replicable today. There is no explicitly clear statement that some gifts have ceased but one must also compare the claim of possessing a certain gift with Scripture. What is the nature of the gift in the Bible? What is its purpose? How did or does it function? Comparing claims of how the various gifts operate with the Scripture itself is the best way to determine a claim’s validity or lack thereof. God can give any gift anywhere at anytime but the question to consider now is, “Is he giving all gifts today?” To answer this question, we need to compare the claim closely with the Scripture. Lastly, for most evangelicals even if one does not hold to all the gifts functioning today this does not rule out God doing miracles directly such as healing in response to prayer (James 5:13-18). My own view though is to be very cautious about accepting claims of apostleship or prophet or other “sign” or “revelatory” gifts. These were gifts of authority, infallible prediction, miracles/signs, and revelation that God used in the founding of the church.

The Post-Conversion Work of the Holy Spirit

What is the role of the Holy Spirit following conversion? The filling, empowering and guiding of the believer is included in this part of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. While the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs once at conversion, the filling of the Spirit can happen multiple times after conversion and also is commanded. In Acts after Paul’s conversion we read, “But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him” (Acts 13:9). Here the filling of the Spirit is at the forefront propelling Paul’s ministry and happens well after his conversion recorded in Acts 9. To the church at Ephesus Paul writes, “And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Here the filling of the Spirit is given as a command to be followed. In this analogy the Spirit is compared negatively to wine. The point is don’t let wine control you but rather have the Holy Spirit do so. Closely related to being filled with the Spirit is being empowered with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:16, 22-23). It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that enables Christians to live lives obedient to God. Lastly, not only does the Holy Spirit fill and empower but he also leads or guides the believer in Jesus Christ. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14).

Symbols of the Holy Spirit

A final area of discussion is that of some instances where the Holy Spirit is referred to in the Bible with a symbol. Four prominent symbols that refer to the Holy Spirit are the dove, fire, wind and water.6 Each one communicates something different about the Holy Spirit. When looking at a symbol, one must be careful to make sure the context is identifying the symbol with the referent you are considering in this case the Holy Spirit. For example, even though the Holy Spirit is identified with a dove in Matt 3:16 it would be an interpretive mistake to see the Holy Spirit in every place a dove is referred to in the Bible. In Genesis 8:8 Noah sends out a dove to see if the flood waters had receded, but one should not interpret this as Noah sending out the Holy Spirit.

Dove

Probably the most recognizable symbol of the Holy Spirit is the dove that appeared at the baptism of Jesus. It is recorded in all four gospels (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Matthew writes, “After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him” (Matt 3:16). The dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit communicates beauty, gentleness, and peace. The dove also comes from above, perhaps suggesting coming from heaven.7

Fire

Another symbol of the Holy Spirit is fire. In the Bible, fire can communicate the Lord’s presence (Exod 3:2), purification (1 Pet 1:7) or judgment (Lev 10:2; Heb 12:29) depending on the context. The most explicit passage that refers to the Holy Spirit as fire is in Acts 2. “Now when the day of Pentecost had come, . . tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). In a similar analogy, Paul commands the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit” (NASB; I Thess 5:19). Disobedience to the Spirit is like throwing water on a fire.              

Wind

The Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) can also be translated as breath or wind. Perhaps then it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit is seen and compared to as wind. Two verses in the New Testament communicate this.8 In Acts 2:4 Luke writes, “Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting.” And in John 3:8, John describes, “The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The image of wind communicates that the Holy Spirit is powerful, invisible, immaterial and sovereignly blows where he intends.9

Water

Lastly, water is also an image of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes this explicit connection on one of the feast days of Israel. “On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, `From within him will flow rivers of living water.' (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified)” (John 7:37-39). As physical fresh water is needed for physical life, the living water of the Holy Spirit is needed for spiritual life.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Christians should not be afraid of the Holy Spirit but rather look to the Spirit for guidance and spiritual strength. The Holy Spirit is alive and active today in the lives of both believers and unbelievers.10 As Christians, we are to be eternally grateful that the Holy Spirit is our permanent indwelling companion, gifting us to serve others and empowering us to live the Christian life. He is to be respected, followed and cherished.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you respond scripturally to someone that said that the Holy Spirit is just an impersonal force like lightening?
  2. In Psalm 51 David prayed to God to not take the Holy Spirit from him. Why did he pray this? Could God take his Holy Spirit from us today?
  3. Does God communicate to us through his Holy Spirit apart from the Bible? If so, how and how can we be sure what the message is?
  4. How should the indwelling Holy Spirit affect our daily lives?
  5. Can people perform miracles today the same way that the apostles did in the first century?
  6. How would you decide if a spiritual gift is being used in an authentic manner or not? Has some gift ever been claimed where you thought something was not biblical about it?

1 http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20091101/myth-god-is-a-trinity (Accessed December 27, 2012).

2http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/articles/holy-spirit/34-reasons-why-the-holy-spirit-is-not-a-person-separate-from-the-only-true-god-the-father (Accessed December 27, 2012).

 

3 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 639.

4 While some people see one gift of “pastor-teacher” here based on one Greek article in the original language it is probably better to see two separate gifts due to the fact that the words are plural and teaching is seen as a separate gift in Romans 12. See Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 284.

5 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues.  Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? (1 Cor 12:28-30).

6 Walvoord lists several others including “clothed with power”, oil, the earnest or pledge, the seal, and the servant Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 18-25.

7 Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 19.

8 One could also add though 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Here the Holy Spirit “carries along” men and the imagery may suggest a ship being powered by wind. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 24.

9 Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 24.

10 For more information on the Holy Spirit today one could see Daniel B. Wallace and M. James Sawyer, eds. Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today. Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Life

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