Ephesus

Sunday Sermon: Belief But No Spirit

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.

And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Acts 19:1-10 (NASB)

I know I finished my review of MacArthur’s sermon series, but today (Sunday, February 9th as I write this), the Pastor at my church delivered a sermon based on Acts 19:1-22. As you’ll recall, MacArthur’s final sermon in his series was based on Acts 19:1-7 so there is the potential for overlap between MacArthur’s message and Pastor Randy’s preaching. In fact, there was sufficient overlap and parallel, that I felt compared to present my own interpretation today.

I can only read or listen to a recording of Pastor MacArthur, but with my own Pastor, I’m sitting in the pew, watching him, listening to him, and directly experiencing his message, particularly with the background of knowing something about him and how he thinks.

He opened with the Bonfire of the Vanities, which I’ll skip, and I just thought that was a novel by Tom Wolfe, one I haven’t gotten around to reading (Pastor mentioned that Wheaton College might need to burn a few things, but I had to look that up online to know what he was talking about).

Oh, to see why bonfires are relevent to this sermon, see Acts 19:18-20. I also mention those verses at the very end of this missive.

The “MacArthur connection” came in when Pastor backed up a bit into his sermon for last week and discussed Apollos.

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 19:24-28 (NASB)

You may want to refer to the relevant sections of MacArthur’s sermon to see how MacArthur’s and Pastor Randy’s messages interface. Just a suggestion.

Relative to both Apollos and the twelve disciples Paul encounters at the very beginning of Acts 19, Pastor Randy seems to split the state of being a “believer” with being a “Christian.” I tend to use the two terms interchangeably, but Pastor Randy drew a sharp distinction based on this:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

James 2:19 (NASB)

walking_on_waterApollos and the twelve disciples were taught the baptism of John (probably not by John himself) but, as MacArthur said in his sermon, didn’t have all of the details about who and what they were being baptized into. Frankly, I really can’t place any blame at the feet of Apollos and the other disciples since they didn’t have the Internet, email, text messaging, the telephone, or any other way to quickly disseminate a unified body of information in the then-civilized world of two-thousand years ago. Written letters were slow and when copied for re-delivery, may not have been copied precisely. I imagine there were a lot of folks with only bits and pieces of the teachings of Jesus who had to interact with other believers and teachers in order to get a better picture, but this would have taken a lot of time.

Both MacArthur and Pastor Randy said (and I like Pastor Randy’s delivery a lot better) that believing isn’t enough and that at this point and until they received the Holy Spirit, Apollos and the twelve weren’t Christians. In my previous review of MacArthur, I wondered how he arrived at that conclusion and Randy was able to fill in some blanks.

But this raised other problems. Like MacArthur, Pastor Randy said that a certain passage in this text has given rise to a misunderstanding.

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”

Acts 19:2 (NASB)

Depending on the translation, the question could be rendered (erroneously, according to Pastor Randy) “Having believed, did you then also receive the Holy Spirit?”

The idea is that coming to faith and believing in Christ automatically results in, as MacArthur states, a one-time, momentary miracle of receiving the Holy Spirit. Apparently (I’ve never heard this but there’s a lot I don’t know) in Pentecostalism, there’s the idea that one becomes a believer and then at a subsequent time, one receives the Holy Spirit. Randy and MacArthur both stress that coming to faith and receiving the Spirit is a simultaneous event. It’s not one and then the other.

Of course, that makes quoting James 2:19 in this context seem odd since James is saying that believing isn’t enough. Then again, James isn’t talking about believing and the Holy Spirit, but he’s “marrying” belief/faith and actions, leading a transformed life. Of course, Christianity teaches that you can’t live a transformed life without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so I suppose that’s implied.

I got to thinking about Calvinism, which both MacArthur and Pastor Randy support, the idea that only certain pre-selected individuals will ever come to faith in Messiah and that, regardless of how we evangelize the rest, they are not pre-determined to be among the elect, and therefore, they are automatically condemned to Hell before they were ever born.

arminianism-calvinism-debateAccording to Calvinists, you’ll never believe let alone receive the Holy Spirit if you are not among the pre-selected elect. The gospel message of Jesus Christ will just bounce off of you. However, if you are among the elect, you will take hold of the message of salvation and receive the Holy Spirit and become a Christian. Of course to be pre-selected also supposes that in your future at some point, you are destined to hear the message of the plan of salvation. I can’t imagine God selecting someone and then not providing the opportunity to hear about Jesus.

I also can’t imagine God selecting someone as a member of the elect and then them becoming a believer but not a Christian. But then Pastor Randy did challenge the congregation. He said that we can’t take for granted that we’re saved just because we answered some altar call once upon a time or raised our hand at a Bible camp at age 14 indicating that we believed. If we aren’t living a transformed life, we haven’t received the Spirit. We’re not really Christians.

But if belief and receiving the Spirit is a unified event and don’t take place separately, then how is it possible to be a believer and not receive the Spirit, thus becoming a Christian?

I’ll take it for granted that I missed something in Pastor Randy’s sermon, but it certainly seems based on my notes and my memory, that a contradiction exists within the body of his message.

Randy painted a picture of someone at Heaven’s Gates asking to be let in. A voice asks the person, “Why should I let you in?”

Randy said the only appropriate answer would be, “I have trusted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

Before Randy answered his own question, the first response that came to me, imagining such an august and solemn query was, “I am not worthy to enter the Heavenly Courts and to approach the Throne of God.”

Well, I’m not. Who am I? Just a guy. Why would God allow me to enter into His presence. Not because of any answer I could possibly give Him. Only because He is good and gracious and merciful. Belief and faith isn’t a magic ticket that gets you a free ride on the bus to Heaven. If God weren’t merciful in the extreme, no amount of belief we could cognitively or emotionally generate, and no acts of righteousness, even out of that faith and devotion, could sway God this way or that.

Yes, I believe human beings have free will and we can choose or reject God, but it is God who chooses to accept or reject us as Sovereign King, and the King only accepts out of His gracious mercy through our woefully inadequate and imperfect faith.

Although, thankfully, Pastor Randy didn’t use terms such as “Pre-Cross” or “wrong side of the cross,” he did characterize Apollos and the twelve disciples as “Old Testament Saints” as opposed to Christians (he also used “mini-Pentecost,” which MacArthur mentioned as well and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean). The difference is the arrival of Jesus and the key verse “…no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). Before Jesus, Jews came to faith in God the Father and in that faith by God’s grace, there was salvation. Then Jesus arrived and faith in God was no longer the key, but rather access to God required faith in Jesus. Did God change the rules?

I’m not even going to attempt to evaluate that one and the Jewish anti-missionaries have a field day with the dissonance suggested in this doctrine.

I won’t go into the rest of Pastor Randy’s sermon since at this point, the parallels to MacArthur end, but I do want to mention the “saving grace” of the service, so to speak (not that I had anything against the preaching, but it raised as many questions as answers). Today (as I write this) is part of a series of services at my church aimed at promoting and supporting Christian missionary work, so normal Sunday school classes were suspended. Instead, one big Sunday school class with guest speakers was to be conducted in the sanctuary.

So instead of the last hymn being sung, Pastor Dave went up to the pulpit and conducted a closing commentary and prayer based on this:

Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.

Acts 19:18-20 (NASB)

burningPastor Dave invited us all to consider our lives, what we have in them that is displeasing to God, those practices, materials, and beliefs we need to confess and burn (literally or otherwise), all the “stuff” that separates us from a closer relationship with God, or even having any relationship at all.

Theology aside, Pentecostalism aside, transitions from Judaism to Jesus aside, this was probably the single most practical message based on these scriptures that I heard, the urging to leave our habits, our traditions, and our comfort zones and to honestly examine ourselves, and I hope (re)examine the scriptures, and re-evaluate who we are, what we’re doing, and what sanctifies and desecrates the Name of God.

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17 thoughts on “Sunday Sermon: Belief But No Spirit”

  1. That’s kind of a funny scene, imagining an exchange of conversation at a set of heavenly gates. You envisioned a response in proper humility, but not one which actually answered the question. My first thought was the Jewish response of answering a question with a question, or even a whole bunch of questions, like: Why shouldn’t you let me in? Why are you asking? Did somebody tell you that you should stand there asking people silly questions? Is this a trick question? Didn’t I read a sign somewhere saying “Whosever will, may come?” I thought Rav Yeshua said something about being a door — what’s with these gates, already? Now, it might be inferred that such a questioner is evidencing a rather high degree of confidence in the existence of a trusting relationship that was established long beforehand, rendering the initial question entirely unnecessary. Alternatively one might consider the kind of response you thought of, in effect saying: “If you need to ask, then I’m already in deep doo-doo; and nothing I can say is going to help me much”. At this juncture, one other question comes to mind: “Am I at the right gate? This seems to be the gate of Judgment. I was looking for the gate of Mercy. Did somebody give me some wrong directions? Can you tell me how to reach the gate of Mercy?” Rumor has it that that is the sort of question HaShem really wants to hear.

    As for receiving a spirit of holiness that impels one to become linguistically expressive, I suggest that these texts have been terribly misunderstood regarding the nature of what was actually occurring. There are, no doubt, some sermon notes deserving to be added to that vanities bonfire.

  2. Actually, I think a lot has been misunderstood and lost over the long centuries since the apostles spread the good news of Messiah in the diaspora. But perhaps it’s not beyond recovery.

  3. The idea of faith being inseparable from works is a very Hebraic one. James, being a practicing Orthodox Jew, speaks to this. I would encourage you to study the Hebrew word for faith, Emunah, and all its ramifications. It is much different from our Western mindset of faith, which says all we have to do is believe. The idea behind the Hebrew thought is that I have such confidence in something that I will DO something. Paul said to be DOERS and not hearers only. Jesus said if we love Him we will KEEP His commandments. It is from Emunah that we get the word “Amen,” which, in its literal sense means more than I agree with something, but I will DO it. The understanding of the commandment to wear tellifim on our hand in Deut 6:8 is that Torah will guide our actions, i.e. I do not just “believe” Torah with my mind, but I will apply Torah to my actions. So, yes, faith without works is dead. A person acts on what he truly believes. Otherwise, it’s just so much information and verbage. I agree with your pastor in that most of what we call Christianity today is what should be called Nominal Christianity: Christian in name only; for their actions do not follow those of the Messiah, who, by the way, was a halacha following orthodox Jew, as you well know. So, saying one believes something that one is not willing to follow up and do is no belief at all.

  4. Ed said: A person acts on what he truly believes. Otherwise, it’s just so much information and verbage. I agree with your pastor in that most of what we call Christianity today is what should be called Nominal Christianity: Christian in name only; for their actions do not follow those of the Messiah, who, by the way, was a halacha following orthodox Jew, as you well know.

    Greetings, Ed. Yes, I agree however normative Christianity has developed almost a phobia about “do-ing” for fear they’ll become a “works-based religion”. That isn’t supported at the church I currently attend and in fact, the young missionary guest speaker we had yesterday was very emphatic that we must DO, not just believe.

  5. “…normative Christianity has developed almost a phobia about ‘do-ing’for fear they’ll become a ‘works-based religion.'”

    Exactly. This was the way I was raised as a fundamentalist pk/mk. Societal involvement was practically anathema with those with whom we associated. Basically “good works” not looked down on consisted of “knocking on doors,” passing out tracts, “witnessing,” etc. We left the caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans to the Salvation Army, et.al.

    Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27.

    Anyway, discovered your blog yesterday, and after reading several, I find you to be refreshingly perceptive with the courage to question. So keep on blogging.

  6. “Although, thankfully, Pastor Randy didn’t use terms such as ‘Pre-Cross’ or ‘wrong side of the cross,’ he did characterize Apollos and the twelve disciples as ‘Old Testament Saints’ as opposed to Christians (he also used “mini-Pentecost,” which MacArthur mentioned as well and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean).”

    I am no scientist, but if both the Torah and Israel are likened to trees, then the sap running through even the most recently grafted-in wild branches, it seems, should ultimately absorb at least some of the sap of the original, cultivated root, no? It occurs to me that the above-used quoted phrases all display the same fractured sense of supersessionistic thinking that makes replacement theology the kind of “blockage” that prevents the root-sap from ever reaching the grafted-in wild branch.

  7. Dan, I think this illustrates the difference in how we read the Bible. I tend to read it as a progressive, developmental document that continually builds on itself, so that the earlier prophesies set the stage for the coming of the Messiah, Israel being the light to the nations, and the people of the nations being drawn to Israel to acknowledge King Messiah and to worship the God of Israel, responding to Israel’s light.

    Much of Christianity, whether they realize it or not, tends to create a barrier between the prophesies of the Tanakh and the advent of Messiah such that the past has to be revised through the lens of the apostolic scriptures. That creates a significant dissonance between the earlier and later “testaments” (not that these documents are actual covenants though they contain covenant language). Christianity thus must “explain” why the earlier scriptures don’t actually mean what they say but must be re-understood to match current Christian doctrine and theology.

    To be fair, asking “the Church” to make such a re-evaluation and make significant changes as a result would be quite a chore. No one likes change.

  8. “Christianity thus must “explain” why the earlier scriptures don’t actually mean what they say…”

    James, It’s not only the “earlier scriptures” that are treated that way, most Christians also go to great lengths to explain why the NT scriptures don’t actually mean what they say, or at least to find teachers who will do that for them.
    One example of this is the matter of receiving the Holy Spirit. Man’s traditional teachings do everything possible to ignore what scripture says about this – especially those parts of scripture that describe occasions when the Spirit is received.
    We all need to make a decision. Where do we turn and who do we trust if we genuinely want to find the truth?

  9. Where do we turn and who do we trust if we genuinely want to find the truth?

    That’s the $64,000 question, Tim. I know we all * say * that we rely solely or mostly on scripture, but everyone has an interpretive bias. Maybe the best we can do is to choose the bias we believe best represents the original intent of the Biblical authors, even if it’s the bias that doesn’t always represent what we think we want.

  10. James it should not be about interpretation, it should be about who we trust. Do we believe God is able and willing to reveal the truth? Do we turn to Him or do we turn to man’s ideas and interpretations instead?

    Do we continue to ask God for understanding until we receive it? Or do we impatiently try to find answers apart from Him by seeking the opinions of others?

    Do we look to what man says about scripture? Or do we go to scripture for ourselves trusting God to give us understanding by His Spirit? (The one who inspired the Biblical authors)

    And if we are to seek understanding from the Holy Spirit do we rely on what man teaches about Him and His relationship with followers of Jesus? Or do we seek and accept what scripture tells us about Him?

  11. I had this conversation with my friend yesterday. Assuming there’s more than a single, individual Christian who authentically wants to know what the Bible says and trusts God implicitly, why are there so many different interpretations of the Bible?

    I suggest there are three “players” involved: The Bible, The Holy Spirit, and the person reading the Bible.

    The Bible is the Bible. Sure, there are many different translations, but it’s not that tough to find one in English that achieves a satisfactory level of fidelity to the oldest existing texts.

    The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals what it will but here’s the catch. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will re-write our human will, desire, intelligence, faith, or anything else about us. The Spirit isn’t going to “force” us to know something we don’t want to know or refuse to believe.

    That’s right. Human beings are the weak link in the chain. We always have been. All of our internal processes, our ability to comprehend, our emotions, our biases, our filters, and everything about us and help facilitate understanding or inhibit it.

    Everyone who reads the Bible somehow thinks they’re immune to bias and perception, but no human being is. You point your finger at some human beings who rely on ” what man teaches” but I suggest that you and I aren’t any better. We just think we’re right and everybody else is wrong. That’s our human nature talking.

    Frankly, I learn more about the Bible and God when I realize it challenges my pre-conceived perceptions than when I think they’re always being confirmed. The best way around our own biases is to always question them. What makes me right and everybody else wrong? It’s not an impossible question and that process probably keeps us honest. Once we stop questioning our own perpetual “rightness” about everything, we stop learning, too.

  12. I agree that the weak link is the human, and I agree that the Holy Spirit will not rewrite our will – but He IS capable of changing our intelligence and faith and anything else, including our understanding, to conform us to the image of Christ. But only when we are willing to trust him and allow Him to work in our lives

    “Frankly, I learn more about the Bible and God when I realize it challenges my pre-conceived perceptions than when I think they’re always being confirmed. The best way around our own biases is to always question them. What makes me right and everybody else wrong? It’s not an impossible question and that process probably keeps us honest. Once we stop questioning our own perpetual “rightness” about everything, we stop learning, too.”

    And that has been my personal experience of the last decade and more. Continual challenge; and I’ve had to change most of what I’ve believed – because I found the things I’d been taught and had accepted were often contrary to a clear and simple reading of scripture.
    I’m definitely not right about everything, but I know I am right about some things that have been confirmed to me by various means. And it is those things that I am most persistent in addressing.

    For a long time now I’ve repeatedly said that people need to trust the Holy Spirit to teach them. That HE will bring understanding of scripture to those who genuinely desire and seek the truth. And it’s not surprising that the Holy Spirit’s ministry, and His relationship to followers of Jesus, are maligned and distorted so much in man’s theology, from the wild extremes of charismania to the extreme denials of cessationism. And then there’s another aspect – ignoring Him all together as if He isn’t needed.

    Even the sermons you discussed in your article give ideas about receiving the Holy Spirit that avoids most of what scripture says about that experience. So what is the basis for truth on that matter and where should we turn if we want to find the truth? The teachings of John MacArthur and pastor Randy? Or a personal interaction with scripture to find out ourselves what the Bible reveals, without being drip fed only the parts that fit the Calvinist leanings of those men ( or substitute the theological tradition most applicable to personal background)?

    “I had this conversation with my friend yesterday. Assuming there’s more than a single, individual Christian who authentically wants to know what the Bible says and trusts God implicitly, why are there so many different interpretations of the Bible.”

    I’d suggest that there are so many different interpretations of the bible including:
    1) People rely more on what they are taught than on addressing the Bible for themselves.
    2) Denominational Theology is taught more than the bible is taught.
    3) People are conditioned to believe that the Bible needs “interpreting” instead of read and accepted as meaning what it actually says.
    4) People are led to believe that only qualified “ministers” are able to understand and pass on the meaning of scripture.
    5) People prefer to put responsibility onto others instead of taking responsibility for themselves.
    6) Very few people DO trust God implicitly regarding this issue but are affected by one or more of the categories mentioned above.

  13. I generally agree with your points, but regarding number three, you can’t just read the Bible in English or even in its original language and come up with an unambiguous understanding of what it means all the time. Even at the level of just language, anyone who is bilingual and especially anyone who does translations professionally will tell you that depending on a variety of factors, a word or phrase doesn’t mean the same thing all of the time.

    On top of that, you have to understand how those words and phrases were used when they were written, not their modern equivalents in Greek and Hebrew. On top of that, you have to understand the intent of the author and the author’s primary audience. Remember, at its core, the author wasn’t writing to us, he was writing to them. On top of all that, there’s the cultural, religious, national, and many other contexts that affect the meaning of the various scriptures. No wonder we need supernatural help to understand the Bible. But that doesn’t mean we should check our brains at the door. The Spirit isn’t just going to “beam” understanding into our skulls.

    Studying is not useless and neither is an education.

  14. Regarding that point 3, maybe I should have added the condition of “in context” – which should be taken into account when addressing all scripture. The point being made there is that the bible isn’t an esoteric book that needs someone special or specially trained to dig out its real meaning. And it definitely doesn’t need someone to interpret it in a way that contradicts what is written on the page.

    Of course, if relying on small sections of scripture we can come up with countless alternative meanings for a verse or two – but an ongoing interaction with scripture will start to bring more clarity, when the One who inspired the scriptures is given His place in the process.
    I increasingly find that most “ambiguities” or “difficult verses” can be resolved in time through increasing familiarity with the rest of scripture. If something isn’t currently resolved I don’t get concerned about it – I’m prepared to wait.

    I didn’t say anything about checking our brains at the door – but we need to be more willing to use OUR brain and allow the SPIRIT to enlighten OUR brain instead of relying on the brains of “experts”. And neither was there any reference to the Spirit “beam[ing] understanding into our skulls. Are other relationships conducted by beaming things into each other’s skulls?
    When the indwelling Holy Spirit is allowed to fulfil his teaching role, things that at one time were a puzzle will begin to become clear, but it takes the kind of patience that isn’t displayed when we want answers NOW! And it lacks the kind of confusion caused when we are confronted with a variety of man’s contradictory opinions about the same issue.

    Studying and education can be very helpful, but not if our trust is in another person’s study and education at the expense of our personal interaction with the scriptures and the Holy Spirit.

  15. “Theology aside, Pentecostalism aside, transitions from Judaism to Jesus aside, this was probably the single most practical message based on these scriptures that I heard, the urging to leave our habits, our traditions, and our comfort zones and to honestly examine ourselves, and I hope (re)examine the scriptures, and re-evaluate who we are, what we’re doing, and what sanctifies and desecrates the Name of God.”

    I love thinking about theology and the ramifications of it. I disagree with those who refuse to learn, preferring to stay only “in the spirit” to supposedly teach them all the need to know, which can be a smoke screen for justifying laziness.
    But we also need to remember that God is real, He is close, and He is available to us in real time to help, guide, restore, and comfort. Not just ourselves, but the billions of hurting souls in this world, most of which will have a “wrong” take on theology here or there. Your pastor, while I’ve disagreed with him (as you’ve discribed his perspective), seems to be on the right track, and seems to love and honor the Holy One of Israel. Thanks for sharing this.

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