Power Problems

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

Imagine a person came to you and said, “I want to know the power of God.” Many people in the church would give that person a strange look and wonder what was wrong with them. But this is exactly what the apostle Paul wrote here to the church in Philippi, and he wasn’t ashamed to say it. He knew that to know Christ more deeply he’d have to know His power. And we know that Paul not only pursued the power of the Holy Spirit but actually demonstrated it through signs, wonders, miracles and the proclamation of the gospel.

To the Romans, Paul wrote:

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

Why was Paul so comfortable pursuing and exercising the power of the Holy Spirit while so many in the church today get squeamish with any talk or mention of the power of God?

I believe the squeamishness about power and avoidance of the pursuit of the power of God stems from a misunderstanding of power in the Kingdom of God. People are applying their understanding of power in the world and assuming it works the same way in the Kingdom (Hint: it doesn’t).

Americans are skeptical of those in power and anyone who would pursue power. There is a distrust of anyone who would want more power because of all the abuses of power that we’ve seen. We are inundated with stories of those in power misusing and abusing their power for their own selfish agenda. Americans have resisted those in power, rightly or not, since we broke away from the King of England in the Revolutionary War. The whole idea of a government with a “balance of powers” came from this deep distrust of those in power.

So when someone starts pursuing the power of God, all of those assumptions get launched at that person. Skepticism rises, distrust abounds, and questions about agendas get asked. But behind all of this is a profound misunderstanding of the power of God in the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom, and God’s power through the Holy Spirit, does not work like power in the world.

God’s Kingdom is upside-down compared to the world. The first will be last and the last will be first (Mark 10:31). Whoever wants to become great must become a servant (Mark 10:43). The ones listed as the top leaders of the church, the apostles and prophets (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11), are actually at the very bottom as the foundation (Ephesians 2:20).

Some people take this upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God to mean we shouldn’t pursue greatness, but that is not the case. God wants us to become great; He just wants us to know that greatness is a journey downward into servanthood and humility not a climb up an organizational chart. God enjoys exalting His sons and daughters like any good Father would, but He’s called us to humble ourselves first (James 4:10).

This same principle is at work in the power of God. Jesus walked with tremendous power. The evidence of that power was all the healings, deliverances, signs, wonders, and the power with which He spoke. Scripture is clear that our journey in the Christian life is a pursuit of becoming more like Jesus. If we are going to become more like Jesus, one aspect of that journey will include a pursuit of the power of God flowing in our lives like it flowed in His.

The apostle Paul was unapologetic about wanting to know the power of His resurrection. He was unapologetic about operating in the power of the Spirit. The reason he was unapologetic about it was because he knew that identifying with the power of Jesus also meant identifying with His sufferings. The power of the Spirit and the suffering of Christ go hand and hand. To identify with one is to identify with the other. The same is true of God’s love. His love and His power go hand in hand. They are inseparable. So to pursue His power is to pursue His love. Many people don’t understand this because they’ve been too squeamish about power to find out for themselves.

Pursuing the power of the Spirit is like someone saying they are going to run a marathon. When someone says they are going to run a marathon, those who are insecure and those who don’t really know the sacrifice involved in training for a marathon might react by thinking, “Oh yeah? Who do you think you are?” They might assume the person is running for their own personal glory and recognition.

But people who are emotionally secure and people who know the tremendous sacrifice of time and effort it takes to train for a marathon react differently. In other words, they understand that the sacrifice of training for a marathon is GREATER than the personal glory of the finish line. They know that training for a marathon takes so much “dying to self” that the danger of self-glorification is itself usually nullified by the training it takes to finish the race. So their response will be something more like, “Oh wow! That’s amazing! Way to go!”

This is the same with the pursuit of the power of God. The pursuit of the power of the Holy Spirit is a journey downward into humility. It is a pursuit that will demand that you go low and stay low. It is not only identification with the resurrection of Christ but also with His sufferings. It is a million occasions of “dying to self.” The journey itself requires so much sacrifice that it usually nullifies any danger of self-glorification. It is a pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus every day. The pursuit of the power of Spirit is also the pursuit of the love of the Father and surrender to Jesus.

I have found that in my own personal pursuit of the power of the Spirit, the power comes much later in the process. What God does first is have you encounter His love and, in turn, calls you to love others. Then you get humbled, over and over again. Often in this process is the reality of getting misunderstood and ridiculed. In other words, identification with the sufferings of Christ comes before identification with the power of His resurrection. And because of this, many people do not stay on the journey. It requires too much dying to self.

Pursuing the power of God is nothing like pursuing power in this world. It is an upside-down journey of becoming the last and the lowest. Anyone who doesn’t understand this truth has likely never taken the risk of pursuing the power of the Spirit. It’s much easier to stand at a distance with arms crossed and self-righteously declare their disinterest in power, as if that is some badge of humility. It is much easer to never attempt to be like Christ in His power and therefore to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes with it.

Convergence: social justice, the supernatural, and scholarship

I have noticed that streams of Christianity that have a limited view or limited experience of the Holy Spirit tend to err toward conservative, legalistic fundamentalism or universalistic and licentious progressive liberalism. Unfortunately, in the past, streams of Christianity in western culture that have embraced a full experience and practice of the Holy Spirit have tended toward anti-intellectualism and a cult of personality.

Thankfully, what is emerging now in America is a stream of Christianity that fully embraces the Holy Spirit and scholarship and is also informed by global, charismatic Christianity. Global Christianity sees no conflict between caring for the poor and believing in miracles. In fact, one informs the other.

The greatest representative of this convergence of social justice, supernatural Christianity, and scholarship is Heidi Baker. As a missionary she has run an orphanage for decades that cares for hundreds of impoverished children. She also happens to evangelize by using signs, wonders, and miracles. Specifically, she and her team enter a village, call forward the deaf and blind, and show the power of the gospel as they pray for healing and see most of them get healed. This all happens in front of the other villagers who, naturally, then want to know more about this Jesus who heals. She also has a PhD in systematic theology from King’s College London. She is currently launching a university in Mozambique. She daily lives out this beautiful convergence of social justice, the supernatural, and scholarship.

Global Christianity is teaching American Christians that churches which don’t operate in the power of the Holy Spirit are ineffective. Our brothers and sisters around the world are also teaching us that empowering women and caring for the poor is essential to the gospel. Likewise, they are warning the American church that caving to a sexual ethic that is at home in America but foreign to the Bible and global Christianity will weaken the Church and diminish the gospel. And as global Christians get beaten, imprisoned, and killed for the sake of the gospel, they expose universalism for the lie that it is.

The church in America is shrinking while global Christianity is exploding in revival. It is time we learn from them and from the convergence they represent.

Signs of Unbelief

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders in that community, asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. They wanted to test whether they could really believe Jesus was legitimate. Jesus refuses.

It’s important that we understand why Jesus refuses. This is not Jesus saying He won’t do signs and wonders. He had already performed hundreds and hundreds of healings. He had already cast out an overwhelming number of demons. He had already miraculously fed the 5000 (Matthew 14) and then turned around and miraculously fed the 4000 (Matthew 15). And with these miracles we see it bolster people’s faith. Jesus expects miracles to increase faith. But the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) teaches us that it all depends on the soil of our heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were around for most of these healings, miracles and deliverances. They had already seen sign after sign from heaven of Jesus’s legitimacy. But their pride caused their hearts to be full of unbelief, doubt and skepticism. So they wanted another sign. Jesus refused to bow down to their unbelief and doubt.

Jesus refuses to bow down to our unbelief and doubt. Instead, He invites our unbelief and doubt to bow down to Him. Jesus is more than willing to show us miraculous signs, but He is unwilling to throw pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6). He refuses to be treated like a side show, a novelty act, just for the sake of people’s stubborn unbelief.

Right now, so much of our culture operates with the unbelief, doubt and skepticism of these Pharisees and Sadducees. I’ve seen many of my friends go through a process that is called “deconstruction.” I went through it too. It is basically a process of doing surgery on your faith. It’s like breaking a bone that’s not growing correctly in order to set it properly. At least that is what it is supposed to be.

But so many of my friends didn’t go through this process in an atmosphere of faith. It would be like doing surgery on yourself in an open field. It’s not so much the surgery that causes so much damage; it’s the infection that comes from doing the surgery by yourself in an unclean environment that ends up doing the damage.

When deconstruction is attempted on your own in an environment that is filled with doubt, inevitably the infection of unbelief seeps into your bones. Deconstruction itself–when done with spiritual guidance, in community, and in an atmosphere of faith–can be useful. But when it’s done in isolation, without spiritual guidance, in an environment of doubt, unbelief is often the result. Deconstruction in this context will tear down a person’s faith without reconstructing a healthy faith on the other side. It’s like breaking a bone and never resetting it.

If we’re looking for a sign to overcome our unbelief and doubt, Jesus advises us in this passage to look first to the sign of Jonah. In other words, look first to His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead three days later. That is our primary “sign from heaven” that builds faith. The apostle Paul said it this way:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

While uncertainty is a normal part of the Christian life, unbelief is not. Unbelief (often labeled “doubts”) is an infection that can grow to the point of killing one’s faith. Don’t let it. We are not helpless, passive victims of unbelief as if we can’t do anything about it. Root it out of your heart as soon as possible. Choose to trust God. Choose to trust scripture. Choose not to give in to your doubts.

If it’s You…

When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Matthew 14:26-29

The disciples didn’t know it was Jesus at first. They saw something miraculous happening, a man walking on water, but they weren’t sure it was from the Lord. They weren’t sure it was Jesus. At first, they thought it might be a ghost.

Jesus reassures them that it is, in fact, Him. But they still aren’t convinced. They feel like they need some kind of proof that it’s Jesus. Peter starts with, “Lord, if it’s you…” Peter wants verification that the miraculous thing they are witnessing is Jesus and not something else.

Peter reasons that if it is really Jesus, he would be able to come to Jesus on the water. In other words, Jesus kept empowering His disciples to do what He was doing. So it makes sense that if Jesus is the one walking on water, He could also empower His disciples to do it. But if it’s just a ghost, then Peter would never be able to walk on the water.

Jesus agrees.

Jesus invites Peter to come to Him on the water. This is Jesus’s evidence that it is, in fact, Him. The disciples could have just taken Jesus at His word. But if they want evidence that Jesus is the one doing the miracle, they’ll have to take a risk and step out in faith.

All of this still applies today. So many people see a miraculous thing and wonder if it’s really Jesus. Even after Jesus shows up in miraculous ways, people still doubt it is Him. They don’t take Him at His word, so they ask for evidence. Yet, the only evidence that Jesus is willing to give comes after a step of faith. He essentially says, “Believe what I am saying is true, take a risk to try it yourself, and then you will know it is me.”

This isn’t exactly the scientific method we western Christians are used to. We wrongly assume proof will come before faith. Jesus says that it doesn’t work that way in the Kingdom. If you want proof, Jesus is glad to give it. But it will only come after a step of faith.

We say we’ll come to Him on the water if He proves to us that it is Him. He says you’ll only know it’s me after you come to me on the water. We ask Jesus to bow down to our doubts to help us believe. He refuses. He tells us to have our doubts bow down to Him in order for our faith to arise.

We actually shouldn’t be surprised by this. This is exactly what God did with Moses. God showed up to Moses in a burning bush in order to send him to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. But Moses doubted that he was the man for the job. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?“(Exodus 3:11).

Notice how God responds.

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Exodus 3:12

Did you get that? The sign that it is God who sent Moses is that, once all the people of Israel are out of Egypt, they will worship God on that mountain. In other words, the evidence that it is, in fact, God sending Moses will only come after Moses listens to God and takes the risk to obey. We want the sign to be before we obey. God says that He’ll confirm His word with evidence but only after we obey, only after we take that step of faith.

Have you ever prayed that prayer that starts with, “God, if it’s really you….” I know I have! But we have to understand what comes next. God is okay with us asking this question, but don’t be surprised when God’s evidence that it is really Him comes after a step of faith, after an obedient action, after a risk. We so often want to obey out of certainty rather than from a place of faith.

I have found in my own life that God has given me proof after proof, evidence after evidence that it is Him! But this evidence came after I was willing to get out of the boat and take a risk to believe.

Where is God calling you to take that risk, that step of faith?

Consequences of a Miracle

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Matthew 11:20-24

Jesus expected people who had experienced or witnessed miracles performed by Him to respond in repentance and faith. Every time Jesus would heal a broken body, cast out a demon, cleanse a leper, or raise the dead it was a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. Repentance and faith are the natural responses to the invasion of the Kingdom.

Yet, instead of repentance and faith, many people responded only with curiosity and amazement. Unfortunately, many people still do. While curiosity and amazement are normal reactions to the miraculous, if it stops there–if it never gives birth to repentance and faith–then the condition of the heart is not where it needs to be.

If a skeptical, unbelieving heart is confronted with a legitimate miracle, that person stands at a crossroads. They can continue in unbelief or they can repent for their unbelief and choose faith. Jesus expects the latter.

We live in a culture that thinks it’s okay to justify our unbelief by continuing to ask for more evidence. We get piles and piles of evidence and still ask for more. We give our unbelief names like “caution” and “wisdom.” But we don’t admit to what it really is: a hardness of heart, a lack of faith.

Miracles, signs and wonders are dangerous in this way. They put everyone involved at a spiritual fork in the road. It’s one thing to waver in doubt having never been exposed to healings, miracles or deliverance. But once you are confronted with a miracle, there’s no more wiggle room. You either believe or you reject. You either repent for your unbelief or you walk away shackled to your unbelief. There’s no more in-between. And there are severe consequences for staying in your unbelief.

Are you still wavering in doubt and unbelief?

Have you embraced the miraculous or would you feel right at home in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum?

Signs, Wonders and Plagues

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:3-4

The gospel was first announced by Jesus and confirmed by the early apostles. Then God testified to the truth of the gospel by demonstrating signs, wonders and miracles through the Church. God also testified to the truth of the gospel by distributing gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Church to use.

We still have the announcement of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. We still have the confirmation of the early apostles in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, Peter, John and others. But if we reject signs, wonders, miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we miss out on half of the ways that God testifies to the truth of the gospel. Paul talks about how vital signs and wonders were in his ministry of delivering the gospel to the Gentiles:

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

Signs and wonders have always been a primary way God reveals Himself to humanity. When God was creating for Himself a people by setting the Hebrews free from slavery in Egypt, God performed signs and wonders. Speaking about Pharaoh as God laid out His plan to Moses, God said:

…though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.

Exodus 7:3-4

Before entering the Promised Land, God reminds the people of all that He did for them and gives them this instruction:

 In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today.

Deuteronomy 6:20-24

My co-pastor reminded me in one of his sermons a few weeks ago that we often call what God did in Egypt “plagues.” But God did not call them that, nor did Israel. To God and His people they were not plagues but “signs and wonders.” Only to Egypt and Pharaoh were these miraculous events “plagues.”

And I have found the same dynamic to be true today. When God heals someone, performs a miracle, or delivers someone from a demon, there will be those who see these things as wonders–signs of God’s imminent Presence, love, compassion and power. Yet, there will also be some who will see the same miracle and react against it as if it was a plague.

The same thing happened with Jesus. Some, usually the downtrodden and poor, celebrated as Jesus healed people and cast out demons. Yet others, usually the religious elite, did not see the miracles as wonders but instead as plagues–moments where Jesus broke the law, moments that threatened their established system of power, moments of offense.

Every time we hear a testimony of a miracle, a healing, or a deliverance, we have that same choice. Are we going to side with Egypt and Pharaoh or God and His people? Are these stories of miracles plagues or wonders? I believe this is essentially the question Jesus was asking the Syro-Phoenician woman who asked Jesus to get rid of the demon who was tormenting her daughter.

(Jesus) answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Matthew 15:24-27

I believe Jesus was seeing if the woman would get offended at God’s decision to heal and deliver the Israelites first before the Gentiles. He even uses somewhat offensive language, referring to Gentiles as dogs, as a way to see if she would react with offended entitlement or humility.

And we also face this kind of test with each testimony of healing and deliverance. Will we get offended at what God is doing, as He heals someone else first? Will entitlement get the best of us? Will offense get the best of us? Will stories of healing become plagues to our hearts? Or, will we respond in hope and humility as this woman did? Will we celebrate miracles as signs and wonders of God’s goodness?

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:28

Not Simply With Words

…our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:5-6

The result of Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians was not just that they intellectually agreed with the gospel, but that they imitated his way of life. They not only welcomed the message of the gospel, but they did so with joy in the midst of severe suffering.

How was it that Paul was able to see such life transformation from the proclamation of the gospel?

Notice how the gospel came to the Thessalonians. It came not simply with words but with three additional essential elements. You see, when the gospel comes simply with words, at best the result will be intellectual assent. The gospel was never meant to show up just in words.

Paul lists the three additional and essential elements that need to be there with the proclamation of the gospel: 1)power, 2)the Holy Spirit and 3)deep conviction.

Wherever Paul went, he not only declared the gospel but demonstrated the gospel through signs and wonders. People got healed. People got set free from the demonic. The gospel showed up in words and in power. Paul describes this reality to the Romans this way:

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

For Paul, in order to “fully proclaim” the gospel of Christ, it meant that the power of signs and wonders and the power of the Spirit of God had to be there. Which leads us to the second essential element: the Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t enough for people just to encounter the truth in their minds, they had to encounter the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that brings healing to the deepest part of our souls. It’s the Spirit that convicts us of sin and empowers us to encounter God the Father. When Paul proclaimed the gospel, he didn’t just want philosophical agreement. He wanted people to have an encounter with Jesus through the Spirit. This brings about the final essential element: deep conviction.

If the power of God and the Holy Spirit are there with the proclamation of the gospel, then deep conviction is sure to follow. As people have encounters with the truth of who God is and who they are, deep conviction of their sin and gratitude for God’s unconditional love and grace will be the natural byproducts.

For too long the American church has lacked deep conviction. We’ve given half of our hearts and a part of our lives to Jesus, when the truth is that we were bought at a price. Christians that are “all in” seem extreme to us because we’re so comfortable in our bastardized version of the faith. Unfortunately, the gospel came to us simply with words and produced Christians who intellectually dissect and under-live the gospel.

We need a generation in the American church that can proclaim the gospel and bring with it power, the Spirit, and deep conviction from a life fully surrendered to God.