God’s Familiar Presence in Unfamiliar Places

Come near to God and he will come near to you.

James 4:8

God’s presence is sometimes a tricky thing to talk about. For much of my life, talk of His presence stayed in the realm of theology. I affirmed that His presence was everywhere; He is omnipresent. But then I would have an occasional moment when I felt His presence. I didn’t know much about God’s tangible presence (or sometimes called his “manifest presence”), but I knew it was a different category than just His omnipresence.

Then, in 2014, I began to have increasing encounters with God’s tangible presence, increasing both in frequency and intensity. I began to understand that God’s tangible presence could directly impact not only our emotions but also our physical body. There is something different that happens when a measure of God’s presence steps through the thin veil that separates the natural realm from the spirit realm. This is what the priests experienced when they brought the ark of the covenant into Solomon’s Temple for the first time:

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

1 Kings 8:10-11

In my own life this looked like encounters with the Holy Spirit that would completely interrupt my normal functioning. At first, these encounters would simply be me weeping uncontrollably as the presence of God seemed to intensify. These weeping sessions wouldn’t just happen in church services. They would happen when I was alone in prayer or reading a book at Starbucks. This was not emotionalism. These encounters would happen at very unemotional times and in very unemotional places. This was God putting his finger on my heart, and my emotions would respond accordingly.

In 2016, after receiving impartation prayer, I began to have physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit. If you’re not familiar with the term “physical manifestation of the Spirit,” it just means that my body would react involuntarily to the increased presence of God.

These manifestations started with shaking and trembling in the presence of God. Then I started getting side crunches. My oblique muscle on my right side would contract on its own outside of my control. Imagine how your oblique muscles contract when someone pokes you with their finger in your side. But imagine it happening involuntarily in response to the Holy Spirit rather than to a poke. Then a few weeks later, it started happening on my left side.

A few weeks after that the Lord added another manifestation. My right hand started to curl up when the presence of God would intensify. Imagine the muscles in the middle of your palm contracting on their own apart from your control, like your hand was trying to grip something using only the muscles in your palm and not your fingers. Or imagine how your hand would respond if someone drove a spike through the center of your palm. That muscle contraction (minus the pain) is what it feels like when it happens. Then, a few weeks later, this started happening on my left hand.

A few months after that I was given another one. I was at Starbucks, and my right hip flexor contracted on its own while I was in the middle of reading a book on the miraculous. This one has even happened to me a few times while I was driving and singing worship songs. The presence of God would increase as I worshiped and my leg would get pulled off the accelerator as my hip flexor pulled up on its own. It’s a wild experience to have your body react to the Holy Spirit in such a way that your foot gets pulled off the gas pedal while you’re driving down the highway.

All of these physical manifestations of the Spirit continue to this day, and I experience them daily. The only reason I describe these in detail is because they have become a sort of “array of sensors” that can pick up on the increased presence of God or move of the Holy Spirit. They often act like a Geiger counter picking up on the radioactivity of the Spirit. The more tangible God’s presence, the more they go off.

We usually assume when someone picks up on the presence of God, they are having a subjective experience that is not quantifiable. And while that is mostly true, these physical manifestations of the Spirit have made picking up on the increase of God’s presence a more objective, measurable experience for me. The unexpected result of all of of this is that God has given me the ability to sense His increased presence anywhere that I am, and it’s not always in a church service.

There have been a few places that I picked up on the increased, tangible presence of God at moments and in places that I wouldn’t have expected. I’ll just mention two here:

Middle school choral performance: Last year, as a family, we went to watch my oldest son’s band performance. I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to the middle school chorus perform, but they were a part of the concert. As the kids sang, they did fine for a middle school, but my son wasn’t in the chorus so I was only mildly engaged.

But then I began to feel that familiar feeling of God’s increased presence. It totally caught me off guard. Multiple manifestations of the Spirit began to happen to me, and as they did, I took notice. I began to ask the Lord what was happening. He began to give me mental pictures of angels singing along with the kids and a sense of His pleasure when children sing. They weren’t singing worship songs. This was a public middle school performance. It was just the fact that children were singing, and angels with them, that drew in the increased presence of God.

This wasn’t me feeling proud of my kid as a dad. My son wasn’t up there. I didn’t know any of these kids. This was the increased presence of God descending right in the middle of that auditorium. The Lord began to show me how much He loved each of these kids, regardless of whether they knew anything about Him.

Children’s ballet dance performance at an outdoor festival: This one just happened the other day, and it really caught me by surprise. As a family we attended a local outdoor festival so that we could watch my middle son do a taekwondo demonstration with the Demo Team that he is a part of.

Before the taekwondo demonstration, a local ballet studio performed a dance routine for the audience of mostly parents. There was no stage. They had to perform their routine in a grass field. The girls ranged in age from what looked like 6 to 14 years old. They did great, but they were only kids in tennis shoes and tutus. This wasn’t a professional artistic masterpiece. These were little girls doing their best, which is why it surprised me to have the presence of God come like a freight train in the middle of their dance routine.

I was just standing there, again only half interested, when tears began welling up in my eyes. My side started crunching and my hand started to curl up. I began to feel the intense presence of God as they danced. I couldn’t believe it! They were dancing to the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman, which I love, but could hardly be mistaken for worship music.

I asked God about it as it was happening. Again, like the middle school chorus moment, I got the impression that angels were joining these girls in their dance movements. I could feel God’s pleasure. I could sense His smile. He loves it when children dance. Any children. Any kind of dancing. But especially the beauty of ballet. I’m not really a “dance” kinda guy, so it was really eye-opening to sense that God absolutely loves it when children dance. God was like one of the proud parents looking on, maybe the proudest of parents, and His presence was palpable.

If I hadn’t been given this “array of Holy Spirit sensors” in the form of physical manifestations of the Spirit, I’m not sure I would have picked up on the increase of God’s presence in these unassuming places. In fact, I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have. I’m too oblivious. But with these tools, these sensors, I find that God’s increased presence happens in some unlikely places.

Conversely, I’ve been a part of quite a few worship services where His tangible presence doesn’t increase at all. Maybe it’s the distracted, disinterested congregation, or the unyielded worship leaders, or the pastor’s need to control the service. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, many church services often leave the Holy Spirit unwelcome and uninvited.

All of this is a good reminder to me that God delights in drawing near to people. He loves it. He’ll draw near at unlikely times and in unlikely places. But He’s not always welcome to do so in church. The Holy Spirit’s tangible presence is not always invited. And in those times, He will not increase His tangible presence. Unfortunately, He is often willing to do exactly what we’ve asked Him to do. And too often (with our actions, words, or heart-posture) we’ve asked Him to stay quiet, stay on the sidelines, and let us manage on our own.

Old Christians

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.

1 Timothy 5:1-3

In a couple months, I will move my family to the Kansas City area to join the staff of Vineyard Community Church. Last Sunday, my family and I had the chance to worship with them, and I was honored to preach my first sermon there. As a congregation, they are a little older than my current church which has mostly young families and young people in it. 

As I was worshiping, without warning, it felt like God started to download His love for this church to me. As this download started happening, love started to swell in my heart and tears welled up in my eyes. He was helping me to love people I don’t yet know and to see them the way He sees them. Then I felt the Spirit whisper something to me that challenged my view of the church. During one of the worship songs, I sensed Him saying, “Being older just means that they’ve been through a lot and are still choosing to worship Me. Can you hear them? They’ve seen so much tragedy and heartbreak, loss and pain, and yet here they are, still worshipping Me.” 

I instantly felt God’s heart for the older Christians in the room. While “reaching the young people” is talked about all the time (they are the future of the Church after-all), in that moment I felt God’s love for the “older people” in the church. The Lord gave me the impression that they are like grizzled warriors – soldiers who have the physical and emotional battle scars of war yet who decide to keep signing up for another deployment. These are the true heroes of the faith. 

If we have a consumer “business model” for how we do church, the younger generation will always trump the older generations. It will always be about getting that new customer from the next generation. Yet, if we understand that we are at war (Ephesians 6:12-13) and we have a “warfare model” of understanding the Church’s activity in the world, we’ll value the old, grizzled sergeant as much as we’ll value the young, tech-savvy lieutenant. Yes, we need someone who knows how to fly the drones, but we also need someone who has lived through frontline warfare and can share their experience. We need those who are unflinching in the face of incoming fire, resolute in the face of loss, and who have been steeled by seeing God’s victory in the face of opposition. 

Next time you see an older saint slowly making their way to their seat on Sunday, make sure you understand what you are seeing. You are watching an ultra-marathon runner nearing the finish line when many of their peers chose not to finish. You are watching an Ironman triathlete who refused to give up or give in regardless of the pain. You are watching a soldier who’s lost friends and family in this terrible war and yet who is signing up yet again for another deployment. You are witnessing someone who may not be known here on earth but whose name is well known in the heavenly places. 

5 Types of Impartation

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.

Deuteronomy 34:9

Impartation isn’t a word that every Christian tradition uses, but every Christian tradition does it in one form or another. To “impart” means “to give, convey, bestow, release, transmit, or confer.” For example, “The teacher imparted knowledge to her students.” Or, “The spices imparted flavor to the dish.” 

Impartation carries with it the idea that something of value is being released or transmitted from one thing and given to another thing, or from one person to other people. Within the Body of Christ, there are at least five different kinds of impartation that exist for different purposes. With each of these five we’ll examine the primary mechanism used for impartation, the purpose of that type of impartation, and identify those who do the imparting.

1. Impartation of Truth

Primary mechanism: teaching

Purpose: Upgrade for our mind/thinking

Who does it? Anyone can impart truth, but some are particularly gifted who have the gift of teaching.

The impartation of truth can be seen in nearly every Christian tradition. Teaching and preaching are the primary ways that truth gets imparted either through a sermon, seminar, or bible study setting. The apostle Paul charges his protege Timothy to do just that:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:2-4

2. Impartation of Wisdom/Character

Primary mechanism: modeling 

Purpose: Upgrade for our actions/decisions

Who does it?  Anyone can impart wisdom, but some are particularly gifted with wisdom and are more seasoned with life experience.

The impartation of wisdom and character happens primarily through modeling wise living and wise decisions. It happens by spending time with people who have learned important lessons from life experience. It happens less by instruction and more through conversation and life together. It’s about watching someone live well and imitating what they do. Paul said it this way to the Corinthians:

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1

3. Impartation of Life/Courage 

Primary mechanism: encouragement/affirmation

Purpose: Upgrade for our heart/confidence

Who does it?  Anyone can impart life with their words, but some are particularly good at it who have the gift of encouragement.

The impartation of life and courage happens through the spoken word, specifically, words of affirmation and encouragement. Words are often more powerful than we realize. James 3 reminds us that words can build up and tear down. The proverbs remind us that words can impart life or death:

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 18:21

4. Impartation of Authority

Primary mechanism: impartation prayer/laying on of hands

Purpose: Upgrade for our responsibility/authority

Who does it? Anyone can impart authority, but it most often has to come from those already in authority who are raising someone else up. 

In most Christian traditions this kind of impartation is most clearly seen in the ordination ceremony of new pastors. Often, a group of elders will lay their hands on a young pastor who is being ordained into vocational ministry and will impart or confer their blessing and authority onto the young minister. While most people assume this is just a ceremonial rite of passage, throughout scripture we see the laying on of hands confer a real transference of authority. In other words, this isn’t just for show. Something is really being transferred in the spirit realm. We not only see Moses do this with Joshua (Numbers 27:18-20) but we also see this happen with the deacons in the early church.

“…choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Acts 6:3-6

5. Impartation of Anointing/Spiritual Gifts

Primary mechanism: impartation prayer/laying on of hands

Purpose: Upgrade for our spiritual gifting/anointing

Who does it?  Anyone can pray to impart increased anointing and spiritual gifts because, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit doing it, but some are particularly gifted who have the gift of impartation.

While most Christian traditions understand the reality and importance of the first four types of impartation, only a few actually understand and practice this kind of impartation. I have personally been on the giving and receiving end of this kind of impartation (mostly the receiving end) and it is very real and very powerful. With this kind of impartation, there is a transference of anointing, power, or spiritual gifts when one person lays hands on another (sometimes a transference of all three!). We see this kind of impartation happen both in the Old and New Testaments and we need more of it in the Church today. Here are some samples of it happening in scripture:

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him

Deuteronomy 34:9

The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.”

So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

1 Timothy 4:14

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

2 Timothy 1:6

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit.  (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14-17

Just as some people are particularly gifted with teaching or wisdom or encouragement, the same applies here. Some people in the Body of Christ are particularly gifted with impartation. What it means to operate in any spiritual gift is that the Spirit seems to move more powerfully when a person is operating in a gift than when they are not. Again, we see this truth play out with teaching and leadership and other spiritual gifts.

But the same applies to those who are gifted with impartation gifts. When a person who is gifted in this way prays for the impartation of anointing to happen or the impartation of gifts to happen, the sheer volume of impartation that happens in the room is more. This is why, if we want powerful teaching, we need to sit under a person gifted with teaching gifts. And if we want wisdom, we need to be around people gifted with spiritual wisdom. Likewise, if we want to receive an upgrade in our spiritual gifts, power, or anointing, it is helpful to receive prayer from a person gifted with impartation.

There may be more than these five types of impartation, but these five are extremely important for the Church today. If we want to raise up the next generation to live like Jesus, it’s going to take a Church that is able to impart all of these things in all of these ways.

Other People’s Gifts

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good…All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12:7, 11

Sometimes when a conversation comes up about spiritual gifts, I hear someone say something like, “I don’t want that gift,” or “I’m not interested in that.” This is especially true if we’re talking about gifts like tongues or prophecy or healing, etc.

But all the gifts, including these kinds of gifts, are good gifts from a good Father distributed by the Holy Spirit. Is that how we’d want our child to respond if we gave them a bike or a gaming console? 

Usually, this defensive response comes from a place of hearing of others who have those gifts and not wanting to feel like a second class Christian if we don’t have them. These kinds of statements really come from a deeper question which is asking something like, “Am I still okay if I don’t have that gift?”

Imagine if you had a son who was watching the neighbor kid get a bike and your son was trying to fight off insecurity or jealousy. He might be asking himself, “Why didn’t I get that?” Or, “Does he think he’s better because he has that?” He might ultimately resign himself to thinking, “I didn’t want that anyway.” But we wouldn’t want our son to feel that way or think those thoughts. It’s not the right response to seeing others get a gift that we don’t have. And it’s not the right heart posture.

Instead, we would want our son to celebrate other people getting gifts even when (and maybe especially when) he doesn’t get that gift. We would also want him to ask for those gifts if he wants them. And we would want him to be secure in the gifts he’s already been given.

All of this applies to us with regards to spiritual gifts. We need to celebrate others who have gifts that are different than ours. We need to pursue and ask for certain gifts if we desire them. And, in the meantime, we need to be secure in the gifts we already have. Fighting off any sense of insecurity, jealousy, or worry that others will think we’re second class Christians will be essential for this. And we need to make sure we don’t denigrate the gifts of the Spirit–any gifts of the Spirit–but especially those we don’t have.

Depths of God’s Grace

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

Andrew Ripp has a great new song out called “For the Love of God.” I really love this song. I love the truths found in verse 1 and verse 2, the chorus and the bridge. I love the sound of it too. Ripp’s voice is soulful and catchy. You can listen to it here.

Maybe my love for the song is why verse 3 caught my attention. What Ripp articulates in verse 3, I resonate with in my heart. However, as soon as I heard it, the “truth-meter” in my head sent alarm bells going off. As soon as I heard it, I knew two things: 1) there was something “off” about it theologically, and 2) it is a common trope in Christian circles that is regularly accepted as “true” but doesn’t line up with the life of Jesus.

So what does verse 3 say?

The first half of verse 3 says, “If it wasn’t for my failures and mistakes, I would never know the depths of this grace…”

My guess is that, if you have any experience in church, this sentiment feels familiar and maybe even comforting. You may have heard something like this a thousand times. And while it may resonate with our hearts, it actually articulates something that doesn’t line up with the gospel.

What this phrase actually ends up saying is that my sin was necessary. It’s saying something like, “The only way for me to know the grace of God is to sin against God and then experience His grace.” But, is that true? Jesus never sinned yet perfectly knew the depths of God’s grace. Can you see the problem here?

There are a couple issues with thinking our sin is a mandatory prerequisite to knowing the depths of God’s grace. First, it limits the definition of grace to something like “forgiveness.” But God’s grace is bigger than just His forgiveness. If all you know of God’s grace is the forgiveness aspect of it, then you don’t yet know “the depths of this grace.” Grace isn’t just God’s willingness to forgive us over and over again as we sin over and over again. Grace actually empowers us to to be transformed. Grace enables us not to sin.

Imagine God’s grace as a kind of spiritual fuel. We use up more grace not sinning than we do sinning and being forgiven. We can’t live a holy life in our own strength. So living a holy life actually requires more of God’s grace, not less. This is why Jesus knew the depths of God’s grace more than the rest of us yet was without sin.

The second issue with framing sin as a mandatory prerequisite to knowing the depths of God’s grace is that it makes our relationship with God dysfunctional.

Think of a parent/child relationship. There are two main parent/child paradigms where the child subconsciously feels the need to rebel in order to “prove” that their parent really loves them unconditionally. One paradigm is where the child got the message that they had to perform and be perfect in order to earn their parent’s love. Often, a child living in this paradigm will perform well and live a “perfect” life until they can’t take the pressure any more. Then they will subconsciously snap and turn into the “prodigal son,” all as a means to test if their parent’s love is real.

The second dysfunctional paradigm is that of an orphan or adopted child. Orphans will often test their adoptive parents through rebellion because they don’t really believe they are lovable. They are waiting to get rejected once again in order to prove what they already believe.

The point is this: if the only way I can know the depths of God’s grace is through sinning against Him, then I am relating to God either with a performance mentality or an orphan spirit. The truth is that I can know my parents’ deep love for me without rebelling against them. In fact, in a healthy parent/child paradigm, I can better experience their love for me if I don’t rebel against them. The same is true of God.

I don’t have to rebel against God to know the depths of His love and grace for me. If Jesus is our example, then obedience may actually give me a better taste of the unconditional love of God and the empowering grace of God. This concept is so foreign to so many people only because we’ve gotten so used to a dysfunctional relationship with God.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I do love Andrew Ripp’s new song. There is so much truth packed into it. But I wish verse 3 didn’t accidentally perpetuate a common theological falsehood. I wish, instead, it said something like, “Even in the midst of my failures and mistakes, I experience the depth of His grace…”

Unhealed Healers

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:1-4

In the popular television series, The Chosen, they often tackle some difficult issues in the life of Jesus and His disciples. One such issue is the question of why some people get miraculously healed and others do not. They tackle this issue in Season 3, Episode 2 by having James son of Alphaeus (or “Little James” as he’s called on the show) ask Jesus why Jesus hasn’t healed him. Little James walks with a limp and deals with “a kind of paralysis” on the show, yet, Jesus still chose to send Little James out to do ministry where James is used by God to bring healing to others. (You can watch this poignant scene here.)

This scene is particularly powerful because the actor who plays Little James, Jordan Walker Ross, isn’t acting when he walks with a limp. He was born with cerebral palsy and scoliosis. The struggles and questions of the character Little James were similar to Ross’s own real life struggles and questions.

Whether you agree with the particular answers Jesus gives in the scene or the particular theology of healing that the show portrays, it still raises and important question.

Why would Jesus use a person to heal others while not healing the person He’s using?

This question hit home with me as I listened to Ross being interviewed about this scene. He was very honest about his struggles with not being healed and the insecurities that he has battled. (You can watch that interview here.)

I had just finished a lunch meeting with someone and was sitting in my car, outside of Panera, watching the interview on my phone. And before I had a chance to even ask the Lord why He chooses to heal through people whom He hasn’t yet healed, the Lord answered the question. Maybe my spirit asked the question before my brain could catch up, and God decided to answer my spirit before my brain knew what was happening.

So, as I sat there in my car, the Lord brought to mind my own prayers about myself, that God would change certain parts of me to look more like Jesus. I had just prayed those prayers that morning. And as the Lord brought those prayers to mind, suddenly I knew what God was telling me.

“I only heal through people who are still unhealed.”

God was reminding me that He has healed people through me, and yet there are parts of my life that are still unhealed. The parts of my life that are unhealed are not as obvious as Ross’s or Little James, but they are still there. There are parts of my character, my heart, my thinking, and more that are yet to be fully healed. In fact, I will never be “fully healed” in totality this side of heaven. No one will.

So, yes, God will heal through people who are still unhealed because that is all of us. That is all He has to work with. The only One who walked this earth who was completely healed and whole was Jesus Himself. So, now, whenever Jesus heals someone through the prayers of another person or through the laying on of hands of another person, He is healing through someone still unhealed in some way. That’s all He has to work with.

Sometimes our “unhealed” parts are physical. Sometimes they are emotional or spiritual. Sometimes they have to do with parts of our personality or character. Sometimes it has to do with the condition of our heart or mind. All of us walk this earth partially healed and partially not. In Christ, we have been made new creations, yet that new creation is still working its way through us toward fullness.

We are already new creations in Christ, and we are not yet living in the fullness of it all.

Jesus healing others through people who themselves are not yet physically healed is a prophetic sign to us all. It’s a mirror showing us the reality of our own lives. It’s both a celebration of the grace of God who is willing to dwell in and use imperfect vessels of clay, and it is a humbling reminder of our own unhealed, unwhole parts yet to be brought into their fullness.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:6-10

Partnering with God: A short bible study

Let’s try a little bible study thought experiment. Read the following passage of scripture and answer this question, “Who performed the miracles?” It’s a simple question, but I don’t want you to answer based on your theology or preconceived notions. Answer only based on what the text actually says.

Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.

Acts 2:43

So, who performed the signs and wonders according to this passage? Answer: the apostles. Here’s what the passage didn’t say but what our own theology might expect it to say, “God performed many signs and wonders through the apostles.” Maybe that is what we wished it said. It would certainly be a bit less messy theologically if it was phrased that way. But that’s not what it said. It said the wonders and signs were performed “by the apostles.” Interesting.

Let’s try it again. Read the following passage of scripture and answer this question, “Who performed the miracles?” Answer only based on what the text actually says.

The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. 

Acts 5:12

Just to provoke a little more reflection, I’ll ask this question. “According to this passage, not your theology, was it God who did the signs and wonders or the apostles?” I know, I know. Humans can’t do miracles, only God can. But this passage is clear that it was the apostles who did the signs and wonders.

Let’s look at some more passages and ask the same question, “Who performed the miracles?” Answer only based on what the text actually says.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 6:8

Answer? Stephen. Now this passage helps us a little in telling us that he was “full of God’s grace and power,” but the passage is once again unapologetic about naming Stephen as the one who “performed great wonders and signs.”

Or how about this next one. “Who performed the miracles?” Answer only based on what the text actually says.

When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.

Acts 8:6-7

Answer? Philip.

Last one. Except this time, I’ll change the question slightly. For this one I’m asking, “Who cast out the demon?”

Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

Acts 16:18

I know, I know. We want to be able to say God cast out the demon or Jesus cast out the demon or, even, the power of the Spirit cast out the demon. But what does the word of God actually say? Paul is clear when he says, “I command you….” Paul commanded that demonic spirit to leave and, at that moment, it left the woman.

So what am I getting at?

When God does the miraculous on the earth, He chooses to partner with us in doing it. The partnership is so close that scripture often fails to say the qualifiers that we would expect, like, “God did X through such and such person.” It often skips all of that and just says that the person performed the miracle.

What are we to make of this?

Scripture often describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as a marriage between husband and wife (see Ephesians 5:31-32 & John 3:28-29). There is a partnership and a union between us and Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, where the two become one (like husband and wife).

Imagine a husband who works and brings home all the household income and a wife who stays home to manage the house and the kids. Now imagine the wife is the one who organizes their family budget and makes sure all the bills get paid on time. So here’s the question, “Who pays the bills?”

On the one hand, the wife is the one who actually pays the bills, but on the other hand it’s the husband who provides all the income to pay the bills. There is a partnership happening here. It’s not totally correct to say the husband pays the bills (although he is the source of all their resources to do so). It’s also not totally correct to say the wife pays the bills (although she actually executes the action of paying the bills and the bills might not get paid if she didn’t). They both play a role in the bills getting paid. If one or the other didn’t do their part, the bills might not get paid.

This same dynamic is at play when we partner with God to see supernatural signs, wonders, and miracles. Jesus’s death and resurrection provided all the resources for healing. The power of the Spirit in us (not our own power) is what is operating in and through us as we pray for healing. Yet, we do have a part to play. And while our part is small, it is important. We must exercise the delegated authority given to us. We must release the power that is in us. By faith, we must act in prayer.

This is why the scriptures so often say that it was the apostles who performed the miracles, or Stephen, or Philip, or Paul. While we all know the power didn’t originate with them, it did flow through them. They were an essential piece of the partnership to see the Kingdom of God breakout on the earth.

There are other passages of scripture that highlight the fact that God wants to partner with us and work through us to see the miraculous happen around us.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul…

Acts 19:11

This passage makes it more clear that God is the one working through Paul. And Paul mentioned this supernatural partnership himself when he wrote to the Romans.

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Romans 15:18-19

Notice the back and forth. Initially, Paul’s ministry is “what Christ has accomplished through me.” Then it’s “what I have said and done–by the power of signs and wonders.” Then it’s back to, “through the power of the Spirit of God.” This back and forth (it was God, it was me, it was God, it was me, it was God in me, etc) is all an attempt to use limited human language to try to describe this mysterious partnership and oneness with Christ (Christ in you the hope of glory – Colossians 1:27).

James does something similar when he discusses healing prayer.

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. 

James 5:15

So, is it the “prayer offered in faith” that makes the sick person well? Or, is it that “the Lord will raise them up?” And of course the answer is “Yes.” Both/And. Partnership. Union.

In our previous analogy, if we asked the husband, “Who pays the bills,” what do you think he would say? I think he would say, “My wife does.” This, to me, explains Acts 2:42; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6; 16:8 and many other passages of scripture. Who did the miracles? The apostles did. Stephen did. Philip did. Paul did. You and I do.

Yet, if you asked the wife the same question, what do you think she would say? I think she would say something like, “I click the button but my husband is the one who brings home the bacon.” This is essentially how Peter responded after the lame beggar got healed in Acts 3:6-8. Peter said, “Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?…It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see” (Acts 3:12-16).


In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 

2 Timothy 4:1-2

In 2 Timothy 4, the apostle Paul gives his protege, Timothy, a charge. It’s almost the kind of a charge a minister would receive at an ordination ceremony. Paul is reminding Timothy of his calling and what that entails.

First and foremost, Paul wants Timothy to preach the word. Another way of saying this is, “Proclaim the message!” Paul wants Timothy to continue to proclaim the message of the gospel throughout his life.

Secondly, Paul instructs Timothy to “be prepared in season and out of season.” The way the English translators translate this phrase always reminds me of a sports analogy. I always thought Paul was saying something like, “There is no offseason when it comes to being prepared to minister to people.” In other words, I always took this to mean that ministers aren’t just gearing up for events, like Sunday morning services, but that they are called to live a lifestyle that is prepared “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

And I still think that analogy applies. But when you dig into the actual Greek words used here, I think we get another layer of meaning.

The phrase “be prepared in season and out of season,” when translated more literally from the Greek reads, “be present when it is opportune or inopportune.”

First, the word typically translated as “be prepared” is a compound word meaning “to stand upon.” It comes from fusing the word “to stand” (histemi) with the prefix epi, meaning “upon.” So this Greek word ephistemi is the idea of being present or “to be at hand.” When angels suddenly stand before people in the New Testament, this is often the word used to describe that.

Likewise, the word for “opportune” is the Greek word eukairos and the word for inopportune is akairos. Eu is the prefix meaning “well” or “good”. Kairos is the word that means “opportune time.” So eukairos means “well-timed” or “a good opportunity.” Akairos is the opposite of that.

A more modern translation of this whole phrase could rightly be, “be present when it is convenient or inconvenient (whether it’s a good time or a bad time).” Paul is instructing Timothy to be ready to minister whenever and wherever he is, whether it is a convenient time or an inconvenient time. In other words, Paul is saying something like, “Don’t get so caught up in what you had planned to do with your day that you fail to be present to people and to God at inconvenient times.”

When you look more closely at the Greek, Paul’s instruction here goes well beyond “seasons.” This is more about being ready “moment by moment” throughout your day. You see someone who needs help and feel the Holy Spirit’s tug, you stop and help. You get a word of knowledge or prophetic word about that person next to you at the store, you ask them if you can pray for them.

Paul charged Timothy with this truth: True ministers of the gospel learn to live a lifestyle of inconvenient obedience.

The Supernatural

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Romans 15:18-19

Inevitably, when you bring up the desire to engage in the supernatural parts of the Kingdom of God or the desire to operate in the power of the Spirit, you’ll have at least one person in the room say something like, “But I believe everything is supernatural,” or “The Holy Spirit is working in all of our interactions and activities.” It’s sort of like when you invite God’s presence and power to fill the room and the guy in the back says, “But God is omnipresent. He’s always here.”

When people say these sorts of things, sometimes it’s just an attempt at a theological “gotcha” moment. But in my experience, more often, it’s an indication of a lack of understanding of the way the Spirit works and the way the Kingdom works. 

The reality is that there are things we do as the church that we can absolutely do on our own strength without any help from the Spirit. We can make people feel welcome, create community, engage in relationships, etc. all without ever depending on Jesus. In fact, many businesses do this better than the Church and they don’t give a rip about the Spirit or Jesus. A lot of people feel more connected and loved at their CrossFit gym than at church. You don’t need Jesus for this. In other words, things like this are not what we mean when we use the word “supernatural.” We can choose to have Jesus at the center of these things (which opens the possibility for powerful Holy Spirit moments), or we can do it in our own strength. It’s up to us. 

But there are other things that we absolutely cannot do in our own strength. We can’t see people truly surrender their life to Jesus and get saved in our own strength. We can’t heal people in our own strength. We can’t cast out demons in our own strength. We can’t deliver an accurate prophetic word or word of knowledge in our own strength. These things are supernatural precisely because it is impossible to do them without God’s activity and our dependence on Him.

That is what we mean when we talk about “engaging in the supernatural aspects of the Kingdom.” That is what we mean by “operating in the power of God.” It means engaging in ministry where, if God doesn’t move in power, nothing happens. The results make it very obvious whether it was God’s power moving or just our own.

In the same way, those of us who invite the Holy Spirit to come, who invite the increased presence and power of God in the room, already understand that God is omnipresent. What we are inviting is God’s tangible (or manifest) presence. We are inviting God to step a little more through the veil that separates the natural world from the spirit realm so that we can feel His presence and encounter Him holistically–physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Lives are changed when God’s tangible presence fills the room. People are impacted in greater ways when this happens. This is why we invite God to do it. We desire to host His presence and make ourselves available to Him. When His tangible presence fills a room, He does more to transform lives in minutes than we could do in years.

Our society is fascinated with the supernatural but is mostly engaging with the counterfeit forms of it (New Age, mediums, psychics, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, energy healing, witchcraft, the Occult, etc). But, ultimately, what they are looking for is the real thing, they just don’t know the real thing can only be found in Jesus through the Spirit.

Here’s an unpopular opinion that I believe is true: Any church that doesn’t know how to operate in the power of God or the supernatural aspects of the Kingdom will find themselves very limited in reaching this next generation. The next generation knows that there is more to this world than the natural, but what they don’t know is that the true power and authority to engage in the spirit realm comes only through Jesus. Everything else is a poor counterfeit from the kingdom of darkness. A revival atmosphere where they can actually experience an encounter with God is what they’re longing for.

Are you seeing regular physical healings at your church? Are people regularly finding freedom from demonic oppression at your church? Are the prophetic gifts cultivated at your church so that people hear from the Lord regularly through these gifts? Are people just singing songs and hearing a message or are they having encounters with the living God? These aspects of the Kingdom will be essential for reaching the next generation. If your church isn’t yet engaging in these, it’s time to start now.

A New Season

This is a letter that I wrote to my church and delivered today:

Dear Horizon Church of Towson,

I remember the early years when a few of us on Sunday mornings would go into an old, dark and dingy movie theater—smelling of stale popcorn from the night before—to set up our sound equipment, projector, computer, and “kids’ area” (if you can even call it that) before people would arrive. We were just a bunch of twenty-year-olds trying to realize a dream called Horizon Church of Towson. I was there the Sunday morning we officially launched in October of 2004. 

Since then, we’ve grown and matured and gone through many seasons. We learned how to do link groups and life together. We learned how to care for the marginalized and engage in social justice initiatives. We experimented with spiritual disciplines. We moved out of the theater and began renting a church building. Our children’s ministry grew as did the number of people getting married and having babies. We experienced a move of the Spirit where the supernatural gifts of the Spirit were awakened and set aflame among us. With your generous giving, we purchased our own properties, and we somehow managed to survive COVID. Season after season, God has been faithful to us. 

This is why it is with a heavy, yet hopeful, heart that I share with you today that I am officially resigning from Horizon Church this May. Besides facing my brother’s tragic death, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to face and the most difficult decision Missy and I have ever had to make. I want you to know that it has been an honor to serve as your pastor for the last 19 years. Every organization eventually has to move on from its founders, and this is now that time for Horizon. 

There may be questions and emotions that naturally arise with this sort of announcement. First, let me address the emotions. This news will likely cause a wide range of feelings within our church community. I want to encourage you that the full range of emotions are appropriate for a moment like this. Missy and I have cycled through all of them, more than once, as we prayerfully considered this decision. Sometimes it’s just hard for a church to lose one of their pastors. Believe me when I say it is equally as hard to say goodbye to a church that I planted and led for nearly 19 years. A variety of emotions are a part of grieving, so let’s make sure we grieve well together. 

So, why am I resigning now? 

The best answer I can give to that question is that I am resigning because God is calling us to move on from Horizon Church. Over the last few years, the church leadership and I have started to grow in different directions, and it is time for me to pass the baton of leadership to the next generation of leaders at Horizon. Missy and I believe this is what God is asking us to do. We’ve been honest with God and told Him that we don’t want to do this. Yet, ultimately, God has our “yes.” We have consulted our closest friends, spent countless hours in prayer, asked the Lord to speak through scripture, through wise counsel, through prophetic words, and through the Spirit’s leading. God has been faithful to do so on all fronts. As a result, we feel the Lord is calling us to move on.

You may be wondering where we’re going. 

Being a pastor is a weird job. When you change churches, often the best thing to do is not to go to a church across town. Changing churches usually involves uprooting your family and moving. This is one of those painful realities of being a pastor. Sometimes God asks all of us to do hard things, yet we know He is faithful and that there is blessing on the other side of obedience.

After much prayer, many tears, and much heartache, Missy and I believe the Lord is asking us to move to Kansas City and take the Teaching Pastor position at Vineyard Community Church of Overland Park. 

As I’ve tried to process this decision, I’ve found the following quotes to be helpful to me. Maybe they will be helpful to you as well.

“The economy of the kingdom of God is quite simple. Every new step in the kingdom costs us everything we have gained to date. Every time we cross a new threshold, it costs us everything we now have. Every new step may cost us all the reputation and security we have accumulated up to that point. It costs us our life. A disciple is always ready to take the next step. If there is anything that characterizes Christian maturity, it is the willingness to become a beginner again for Jesus Christ. It is the willingness to put our hand in his hand and say, ‘I’m scared to death, but I’ll go with you. You’re the Pearl of great price.’” 

John Wimber

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Jim Elliot

We love you, Horizon Church! As we have helped to birth this church and see it mature, we have been forever changed by this community. Horizon will always be a part of me, my family, and my ministry. It has been an honor to serve as one of your pastors for 19 years. As alumni, we will be rooting for you and cheering for you from a distance. 

With a heavy but hopeful heart,

Mark Stephenson

P.S. Also know that I’m happy to process any other questions and concerns you may have. Until June 4th, I will make myself available to anyone who wants to talk in person. And after that, I will be just a text or Zoom call away.