Wednesday 27 April 2011

Doubting the resurrection (Matthew 28)

How important is the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

The question came up just a week ago in a conversation I had on a train back from New Word Alive. It was a seven-hour journey from Wales during which I met two gentlemen sitting across from me as I was reading my bible. We got to talking about God, different world religions and even the reliability of the New Testament. Eventually, we got to the resurrection. I said that it was so important to know and decide if what the bible said was true: Did Jesus really die for our sins? Did he rise from the dead?

Both of them were elderly men. G was visiting his wife in hospital. It involved taking a train, then a bus. It was a considerable distance. He did this every day.

S was dressed in a white shirt and black suit. He was on his way to a funeral.

G and S were regular church-goers. As far as I could tell from our conversation, for them, Jesus was a good man. But he did not die for our sins. And Jesus did not rise on the third day. There are many perspectives, said G; to Jesus and to the bible. And we need to consider them all.

What do you think? Is the resurrection true? Or just a point of view?

Today we look to passage in the bible that gives us not one, but three different perspectives to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Matthew 28 is a record of the events that occurred that first Easter Sunday, three days after Jesus was crucified and buried in the tomb. He tells the story from three different viewpoints. We meet three groups of people in this passage: The women (verses 1 to 10), the guards (verses 11 to 15) and finally, the closest friends and disciples of Jesus (verses 16 to 20). In doing so, the bible presents us with the evidence for the resurrection, but also, the different responses to that same evidence, as well as the motivation behind these responses.

We begin with the women.

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
Matthew 28:1

These women are amazing. All four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – record how women were the first eye-witnesses to the empty tomb. They were the first to meet the resurrected Jesus. If only because of this one simple reason: they stuck around.

When Jesus was crucified, the women were there.

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
Matthew 27:55-56

When Jesus was buried, there were the same women. Mary and Mary.

61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
Matthew 27:61

So our passage today opens with the two Mary’s making their way to the tomb once again. It is the same reason why anyone goes to visit the grave of someone they love. They are grieving. Verse 1 says, they went to “look at the tomb.” The resurrection was far from their minds.

And what they saw next would have been almost beyond belief.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
Matthew 28:2-4

Grown men froze in fear at this sight. An angel descends from heaven, causes an earthquake, and rolls back the huge stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. Then the angel sits on top of the stone. Why?

Not to let Jesus out. That’s what I used to think. Jesus was stuck in there, “Let me out! Let me out!” So God sends this angelic being to his rescue – to let Jesus out.

No, the reason God sent the angel and rolled away the stone, was to let the women in.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Matthew 28:5-6

The women came to “look at the tomb” (verse 1). So the angel shows them the empty tomb. “Come and see,” the angel says. See the place where Jesus lay. But really, in their hearts, they wanted to see Jesus. Verse 5: “I know you are looking for Jesus,” the angel says to them. “He is not here” (verse 6).

Seeing is believing. For many, that is what it takes. If only God would show himself; do something spectacular before my every eyes. Then I would trust him. Only then would I believe these extraordinary claims in the bible.

But the women weren’t the only eye-witnesses at the scene. The guards, they were there, too. They saw the angel. They saw everything (verse 11). Yet they did not believe. No, we need to read on to understand why these women understood what they saw, as well as, what they heard.

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Matthew 28:8-10

Verse 9 really struck me when I read it this week. They met Jesus! And question I have been asking this text all week has been: why here? Why did Jesus make his appearance here?

I mean, why didn’t he meet them at the tomb? We read from verse 8, the women are on their way, leaving the tomb, to meet the disciples as the angel had instructed them. But along the way, Jesus (“suddenly”, the text tells us) meets them.

Two reasons. Based on what they did, and based on what Jesus said.

Firstly, what these women did, when they met Jesus. They (verse 9) “came to him and clasped his feet and worshipped him”. The moment they saw Jesus in the flesh, they bowed down and grabbed his feet. You see, the empty tomb means the resurrection is reasonable. We can believe and we should believe in the resurrection, based purely on the evidence of the New Testament. But really, the reason why we ultimately do believe is love. The presence of the resurrected Jesus, makes his love real, and our love for him, compelling.

I think in part – and really I must stress this bit is just my inference – Jesus wanted to see these women. These amazing women who had stuck around; who saw him tortured and hanging from the cross. Who sat across the tomb just to watch his body being carried in. These women loved Jesus. That much is plainly obvious. It must have been unbearable witnessing the crucifixion. But they couldn’t leave him. They had to be there. Remember what the angel said back in verse 5? I know that you are looking for Jesus.

And here in verse 9, they see him! And they grab his feet, “Jesus, it’s really you!” And I think Jesus, too, wanted to see them. He saw their hearts, he knew their anguish and their pain. The moment they heard the news from the angel, the women were filled with fear but also with joy (verse 8). And Jesus wanted to complete that joy. He wanted them to see him, but I think that he too, wanted to see them.

You know, women put us men to shame when it comes to worship. That’s what they did in verse 9. They worshipped Jesus.

We men turn up in church and we try our best to look cool and in control. To stand up and sing a song about Jesus, that’s really tough on our egos. Oh, we don’t mind the songs that talk about Jesus as our conquering King; the Christian life as a battle. Those kind of songs, we’ll sing with gusto. But anything that has words like “I love you, Lord” or “Jesus, lover of my soul.” Come on. We’re men! Please don’t give us songs with words like “The heart of the bride belongs to Jesus”!

Men, the women put us to shame. They understand what it means to love Jesus and worship him, and wait for him and rejoice in his presence.

Where were the men when Jesus was crucified. Sure, we see Joseph approaching Pilate for the body. But the disciples? Those closest to Jesus? They fled. The women remained. They stayed.

The men at the tomb, the guards, they just froze in fear. The women, too, were fearful (verse 8), but they were also joyful. The responded in obedience – hurrying and running to tell the disciples.

And Jesus appeared to them – to these women – to honour their joy and obedience. He loved them for their devotion and faithfulness to him – all throughout the events of the cross and burial; and now in response to the news of the resurrection. Jesus loved these women.

That’s the first reason. Because of what these women did. They waited and then they worshipped.

But the second reason is verse 10 – what Jesus said.

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Matthew 28:10

Now look back to verse 6. This is exactly what the angel tells the women back at the tomb. Jesus has risen and is going to Galilee. Now tell the disciples to go there, because there, they will see him.

The angel was a messenger. And as important as it was for the women to see what they saw, it was even more vital that they heard what the angel had to say. Verse 6: He has risen, just as he said.

All throughout his life and ministry, Jesus spoke clearly and repeatedly and emphatically, about his death and his resurrection. Back in Chapter 16:

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Matthew 16:21

Again in Chapter 20, before entering Jerusalem. And again in Chapter 26, where interestingly we also find these words to Peter, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (Matthew 26:32)

Meaning this: Jesus knew he would die. And Jesus told his disciples he would rise again. In fact, he says in Chapter 16 that he “must” die. It was his will and plan to suffer on the cross.

The angel was reminding the women of Jesus’ words. That was his primary mission: to convey a message. “Now I have told you,” he says at the end of verse 7, as if to say, “There, that’s the job done. Phew! Got the message through.”

But then the women are now to carry this same message to the disciples. “I have come to tell you, what you are to tell the disciples, what Jesus told you all this while. There, I’ve told you!” Or something along those lines!

And now Jesus appears while they are on the way back to tell the disciples. Curiously enough, he repeats the exact same message as the angel. The question is, Why?

Something very significant is happening here. It is almost as if there is an intentional separation of and sequence to these two events. First, the word from God. Then, the appearance of Jesus. And I think, Jesus makes his appearance only here to say to the women, What you heard back at the tomb, those were my words to you. And now the words you carry to the disciples, those are my words to them.

Jesus is giving weight to their witness; weight to their words. These are the words of God. When you speak, I speak.

What we need to see, at the heart of this message, is faithfulness. God’s word is his promise. When he gives us his word, he is promising that he will do something in accordance to that word. I would even go as far as to say, God never does anything that he does not reveal according to his word.

That’s a pretty bold statement. But it is true. God reveals his will in his word. And God acts with such integrity and faithfulness, that he never does one single thing, outside of his will in his word.

The guards don’t understand what happened at the tomb. Because they did not understand the message. It wasn’t for them. Perhaps they didn’t hear the angel. Perhaps they just didn’t get it. You see, it isn’t just about knowing that there was such a person named Jesus, that he died, that he rose again. It really is about knowing what God said about Jesus: why he died, why he rose from the dead. It is understanding God’s word – if you like, God’s perspective – on these events.

That is what the women uniquely had. Because the message was for them. Because they trusted in this message. That is the bible’s definition of faith. It is to trust, to rely and to depend on a God who is trustworthy, reliable and dependable. Jesus said this would happen. And it happened as Jesus said it would happen.

But next, we see the guards, also carrying a message. We see a different response to this message.

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’
Matthew 28:11-13

I should clarify: it’s not normal to have guards stationed at a tomb. You have guards at a bank, in front of Buckingham Palace, you even have guards patrolling the Grafton Centre. But these men were sent to stand guard in front of Jesus’ tomb. That is strange, unusual. Matthew tells us why at the end of Chapter 27.

62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
Matthew 27:62-64

Now look back at verse 13. What was the reason the chief priests and elders had for the missing body? “His disciples came during the night and stole him away”.

Even before any of this happened, they had already decided in their minds what had happened. It was a pre-decision. They had made their minds up.

You get a lot of conspiracy theories today about Jesus. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code says the church made the whole thing up. So some will say that Jesus faked his death. None of this is true. They are elaborate lies designed to trick the gullible and simple-minded.

What I want you to notice is, these conspiracy theories aren’t new – they were around two-thousand years ago. And yet, notice that even those who opposed Jesus, never doubted that he died. They made sure that he died. Don’t believe the nonsense about Jesus faking his death. The religious leaders and the Roman authorities did not have any doubt that he did die on the cross. Their concern was making sure he stayed dead. That’s why they stationed guards, they put the seal on the tomb – to make sure no one could sneak in and steal his dead body.

Yet at the same time, we see them making up their minds, to such a degree, that nothing, absolutely nothing would change their minds. Not even the testimony of the guards they had put there at the tomb. The problem with “conspiracy theories” is not that they are compelling or true – it is that many who hear them have no interest in the truth. Its purpose is not explain but to explain away. I wonder how many of you have read the Da Vinci Code (or seen the movie) – I have. And yet how many of you have read the bible. Maybe today’s the first time you have read Matthew 28.

By all means, disagree. Question the facts. At least you are disagreeing with the actual claims of the bible. They are pretty amazing claims – almost unbelievable.

When it came to the claims of the resurrection – even the disciples were surprised. No one, absolutely no one expected this. I need to stress this. No one doubted Jesus died. His body was in the tomb. But everyone doubted when they heard he had risen.

The women were surprised; and we’ll see soon, even those closest to Jesus were still hesitant about the resurrection. The bible is honest and open about their reactions. We should be honest about ours.

What reason do you have for doubting the resurrection? Is it because you have only ever heard the objections?

Or is it because of verse 14:

14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Matthew 28:14-15

It is talking about the guards. They were there. They saw and heard everything. Yet for them, it wasn’t a conspiracy theory that made them question the resurrection. The bible gives a much simpler reason. They didn’t want to get into trouble (verse 14). They were paid to look the other way (verse 15).

Self-preservation and self-fulfilment. What I can get out of this.

So today – Easter Sunday – is the day we buy one another chocolate eggs. We will greet one another with “Happy Easter!” as we walk into the building. I was coming in earlier and said to me, “Happy Easter!” and I responded, “Yes, Jesus is risen from the grave. He is ascended on high!” Stunned expressions. “Well, enjoy your time of praise later,” they saidJ

It’s weird talking about Jesus on Easter Sunday. To mention the cross. To point to the resurrection from the dead. People give you funny looks. And yet that is the reason the church gathers, not just this one Sunday in the year, but every Sunday. It is the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every week on Sunday, the first day, we remember that Jesus rose from the grave. One day, so will we.

I am not too bothered whether we make a big deal about today. I don’t see Easter Sunday morning as more holy or special than say, tomorrow afternoon. But I am concerned about this: If we do talk about Easter, we have to talk about Jesus. Not just give out chocolate bunnies to kids and sing nice songs about Jesus risen “in our hearts”.

Like the guards, we don’t want to get into trouble. So when our colleagues ask us what we did over the long weekend, we will talk about the trip to London, the hot weather, the funny story about the Creme egg we left in our pocket; we hesitate to talk about Jesus.

Like the guards, we sell out. We want Easter to be more like Christmas, with the presents and food and fun – all of which is wonderful and good. But also such a shame, as we exchange the truth for gain and convenience. We Chinese call it prudence. I have exams. I’m busy at work. There’s a good movie on. There is something more worthwhile than Jesus. Everything in our Chinese culture says, that’s OK. God understands.

The bible calls it what it is. Selling out. I do this all the time. I reject the truth, not because it isn’t true, but because it is inconvenient. Notice, this is not a case of not having the truth, or being ignorant of the truth, as much as it is a flat-out denial of the truth. It is the exchange of the truth for a lie.

So much so, that verse 15 tells us, these guards had to be “instructed” how to perpetuate the lie. Literally the word is taught (edidachthesan) – which stands in contrast to verse 20, where the disciples are to teach Christians to obey Christ – so here, the religious teachers teach these soldiers to lie.

Not that it is hard to lie. Little children know how to lie without anyone teaching them; It comes quite naturally (“I did not do it! It wasn’t my fault! My dog ate my homework!”). Yet it is hard to keep track your lies, especially when it comes into contact with the truth. You need one lie to cover up another lie. In the case of these soldiers, they have to lie about the body being stolen; then lie about themselves being asleep as the disciples snuck in to steal the body, and then lie to the governor about how they let the body get stolen in the first place!

I don’t mean to sound offensive. That isn’t the reason why Matthew records the perspective of the guards. Not to show up how evil and wicked these soldiers were. But I do read this account and think to myself, What a shame. I’m sure if I were there, I would have questioned what I saw – I wouldn’t have done much better than them. Of course I would have had more doubts and more questions after the incident at the tomb.

And yet... and yet, they didn’t resolve their doubts through reason nor investigation. They reached their conclusions simply by means of self-interest. What was more profitable. What a shame. To have been there at the tomb and seen the angel, heard the explanation of the resurrection, but then to close their minds because of love for money and fear of men. What a shame!

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Matthew 28:16-17

So the disciples must have got the message from the women: To leave Jerusalem and head for their hometown up north, Galilee, travelling up the mountain, as instructed. These weren’t just any disciples. They were “the eleven”: The closest followers who had been with Jesus throughout his three-year ministry – Jesus’ closest friends. His brothers, as he calls them in verse 10.

Jesus appears to them. They see him. And falling to their knees, they worship Jesus. As with the women, Jesus accepts their worship.

But some doubted. I love this verse. I know everyone memorises verses 19 and 20, the Great Commission; they carve those words into the entrances at the churches. “Go and make disciples...”! For me however, the diamond is found here, hidden in the rough of verse 17: “But some doubted.”

Jesus is right in front of their eyes! He is risen from the dead! Yet some of the disciples are going, “Erm, I’m still not so sure.” That’s amazing! Moreover, that is just so encouraging!

Christians have doubts! The longer you are as a Christian, perhaps the more doubts you will have. And it is so comforting to find in the bible an acknowledgement of our doubts, our fears, our insecurities and our worries.

So, you have 1 John written with this express purpose at the end, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Who is he writing to? Those who believe in the name of the Son of God; meaning, Christians. Why is he writing to Christians? So that they know they have eternal life. Conclusion? Some Christians can be unsure about something as fundamental as eternal life, that the apostle John has to write a whole letter about it! That’s brilliant!

Yet it is worth asking the question: why were some of the eleven disciples hesitant upon seeing Jesus face to face? What was it about Jesus that gave rise to their doubts?

You see, their doubt wasn’t: Is this really Jesus? Unlike the fantastic description of the angel back in verse 3 – with an appearance like lightning, with clothes white as snow; there are no fireworks in Matthew’s description of Jesus here. That’s pretty important. If anything, the gospels record how frequently the eye-witnesses did not notice anything spectacular about Jesus after his resurrection. Luke tells us two guys walked 7 miles chatting with Jesus without noticing who he was (The text says “they were kept from recognising him” which is likely referring to his identity, rather any supernatural qualities that were hidden). In John’s gospel, Mary initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener. I live on a street with lots of senior citizens out early in the morning, meticulously working in their gardens. I assure you, they look quite ordinary. Jesus had meals with his followers – apparently he likes fish!

This is all to say: that when the first eye-witnesses saw Jesus, they recognised him as Jesus. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus appeared to “Peter, then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at the same time,” adding the words, “most of whom are still living.” Don’t miss that. Paul is saying, “You want to know if Jesus really rose from the dead? Go talk to that guy, he actually met him.”

The New Testament is unabashedly honest about the fact that the resurrected Jesus was real, widely attested to, and stands up to close scrutiny.

So, if anyone were to be able to recognise Jesus, it would have been his closest friends. But the question remains: Why did they have doubts?

The disciples would have had no doubts that this was Jesus, but there would have been doubts as to whether they were still his disciples. They had abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Everyone left him. These – the Eleven – who boldly made claims of bravado and allegiance to their Teacher. Like when Thomas declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). Or when Peter said to Jesus’ face, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And Matthew then records, “And all the other disciples said the same.” (Matthew 26:35)

Yet Jesus himself predicted they would leave him. “You will all fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 26:31)

And now for the disciples to be faced with the resurrected Jesus, standing before them saying these words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”; the sight would have filled them with awe, with fear, with terror and with regret. Jesus really was the Christ. He was their Messiah. Jesus has now been raised from the grave, just as he said. He is the risen King and Judge. And it would have dawned on these eleven disciples: they had betrayed the King of the universe. He had loved them all these years. They had betrayed his love.

They doubted whether Jesus would accept them. Whether Jesus could forgive them. Verse 18 tells us, Jesus most certainly did.

Then Jesus came to them and said...
Matthew 28:18

Jesus knew the hesitation in their hearts. He came to them and he spoke to them. Remember the message that brought them here in the first place. “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:10) My brothers! Jesus called them, “My brothers!”

Jesus came to call them his brothers. In fact, he came to suffer die, that they might be his brothers, and bring them back to God.

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:10-11

To be called brother by the Lord Jesus Christ is to be in his family. It means that God is our heavenly Father. It means we are accepted as his children. And Jesus, made to be like us, perfected through his suffering, understands. He understands what we go through when we suffer. He knows our fears and he empathizes.

So we come finally to these famous last words in Matthew’s gospel, known as the great commission. A charge given by Jesus himself, to his followers, to spread the message of the gospel, bringing many from all peoples into his Kingdom.

And yet, I suggest that we could also call these words, Jesus’ great promise. Its greatness is seen not merely in its spread and size (all authority, all peoples, all commands), but perhaps more so in the very personal promise he gives at the end. It is the promise of his presence.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20

The authority that Jesus receives as Lord and Christ, through his resurrection, is now passed on. Notice how verse 19 begins, “Therefore”. The reason the disciples can fulfil this mission is because Jesus has received all authority by way of the cross, an authority he now mediates to his followers, to teach others. Not to conquer; not to condemn; not subjugate – but to teach. That is what the word “disciple” means. It simply means “student”; someone who learns. But more than learn, they are to obey “everything I have commanded you,” Jesus says to them. In other words, what we learn as Christians, is to obey and submit to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

This is where baptism comes in. A person is baptised or dunked into water to signify his being lowered into the grave. He is then raised out of the water, as a sign of new birth. It is identifying with Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has died our death; he was raised to everlasting life. Hence, we are baptised into the name – note that it is singular, there is but one name – of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has done this. It is not our baptism that saves us, but God. Baptism is the outward symbol of the inner reality and work of Jesus dying for our sins, and raising us to new life. As learners/students/disciples, we do not submit in order to be saved. We have been saved, and we submit to and obey the God who has saved us.

With this command, comes a promise. “Surely I am with you always,” Jesus says, “to the very end of the age.” Essentially, Jesus is saying, I will never leave you. Ever. It is a promise he is only able to make because of the resurrection. It is a promise we have seen fulfilled even within this chapter. And we need to see this: it comes to his disciples through his word.

Remember what I said earlier: God never does anything in his will, apart from his word. The reality of the resurrection – which is what this whole chapter is about – Jesus raised from the dead, is not a series of cold, hard, facts to be analysed, thought over and debated. It is God’s promise. Jesus gives the promise of his word, and fulfils that promise through his presence.

We saw that with the women. They received the message from the angel. And while carrying that message, in eagerness and in obedience, they meet Jesus.

We saw that with the disciples. They receive the same message, spoken by the angel, spoken by Jesus, passed on by the women. And they obeyed, travelling to Galilee, where they meet with the resurrected Christ. God’s word spoken and God’s will done. Jesus’ promise relayed and his presence mediated.

And now Jesus does the same with us. Tell others the message of the cross and resurrection. And I will always, always be with you.

Why is this significant? Because of death.

We only begin to appreciate the miracle life when we understand the certainty of death. The problem is we often deny death. Hence, we devalue life.

The two men I met on the train last week, understood this. They were on a journey to face the reality of death. Death was real. But it wasn’t simply the prospect of their own deaths they were facing. It was the death of someone they knew and loved. They understood that death meant separation from those we know and love.

The physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead means many things. Now, I shouldn’t make that sound so flippant. The resurrection is cosmic and life-changing in its implications:

It means death is destroyed. Jesus has conquered death as an enemy by taking the punishment of sin, which is death, upon himself.

It means sin is forgiven. God poured out his anger and judgement for our sin and rebellion against him upon Jesus on the cross.

It means sin is defeated. It no longer has a hold on us. We submit to a new master, our Lord Jesus.

It means Jesus is the Christ. He has received all authority and power from God to rule and to judge. And one day he will return, this time not to bear sin, but to judge the devil and all those who oppose him.

It means we will be raised from the dead. To receive everlasting life, or everlasting judgement in hell.

It means God’s word is true. All his promises made clear in his word, given us in the bible, are fulfilled in person and work of Jesus Christ.

It means suffering has a purpose and an end. One day, Jesus will put an end to all suffering. But till then, our present suffering in this present sinful world, is achieving for us glory.

The cross and the resurrection is the turning point in all of salvation history. Everything changed that one weekend.

And yet, I think Matthew 28 brings home one additional point. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we are no longer separated from God.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Matthew 28:20

Jesus promises he will always be with us. And the resurrection means, he can fulfil and has fulfiled that promise. He will always be with us.

I can understand if you have doubts whether the resurrection is true. What I cannot comprehend are Christians who doubt if the resurrection is important. To claim to follow Christ, and yet deny his resurrection, is simply nonsensical. But moreover, it is pitiful.

Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 15:19

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

What he is saying is this: The most miserable people in all the world are Christians who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. If only for this life we have hope in Christ. Then we face death. Then it all ends.

That’s the reality awaiting you if this life is all there is. Your life is just one long train journey; with people getting on and off. And one day, you reach your stop. But there is no destination. No purpose.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything we hold true about God, forgiveness and eternal life. It means we have a relationship with Jesus today. Right here and right now. It means this relationship will never, ever end.

Comfort for weary sinners
Strength for the struggling saint
Jesus Christ has risen from the grave

Peace when the waves are pounding
When voices of hope sound faint
Jesus Christ has risen from the grave

How can grief remain when our Saviour reigns?

You are our hope, You are our joy
You are our overcoming King
So we sing “Hallelujah, Jesus is alive”

Risen from death, ascended on high
Glorious by the Father’s side
So we sing “Hallelujah, Jesus is alive”

Thursday 21 April 2011

Let your kingdom come - 2010 annual review of the English Ministry

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:17)

The Kingdom of God was right at the heart of everything Jesus said and did while he was on earth. Every miracle he performed. Every parable he taught. Each person he healed. These were powerful signs. God was establishing his kingdom here on earth. Ultimately, all of them pointed forward to Jesus dying on the cross. At the cross, we see Jesus glorified as the Christ. Through his death, Jesus was exalted as Lord and King.

As we look back to the events of 2010, we remember God’s faithfulness and goodness shown us here at the Chinese Church. Yet at the same time, we see God’s power and purpose. He is building his kingdom through Jesus.

May the record of these wonderful events serve to remind us: The kingdom is near. Jesus Christ is the risen King.

Matthew - The Kingdom of Heaven

“He who has ears, let him hear.”
Matthew 13:9

We kicked off the year with a series looking at the earthly ministry and work Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. We learned of Jesus’ birth, his temptation by the devil and how he began his ministry in the small town of Galilee. We heard the most famous sermon in the bible - the Sermon on the Mount.

We also saw opposition. Religious people didn’t like Jesus. They didn’t like Jesus’ friends, who were poor, sick and uneducated. The religious didn’t like what Jesus had to say. He called them to repentance.

Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of Heaven. This meant salvation: God was finally going to save his people from oppression, injustice and even death. But it also meant judgement: God was going to destroy the devil and all who oppose his authority as God.

This announcement of the kingdom is what the bible calls the gospel.

1 Corinthians - God is faithful

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
1 Corinthians 1:18

Our series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was a study on the church. What is the church? Why do we come together as the church?

Surprisingly, the bible answers these questions not by talking about the church, but by focusing on Jesus Christ. God calls us to himself in Christ. God is faithful in sustaining us to the end through Christ. God builds his church on the one foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Rock Fellowship

Our mid-week bible study meeting has been growing and growing. More friends. And more food! All glory to God who has been so good in giving us more grace.

We concluded our study from the book of Genesis, which we began in 2009: All fifty chapters (well, minus a couple here and there)! Beginning with creation, fall and the flood, we have journeyed with Abraham and Isaac, and seen the last days of Jacob in Egypt, together with his twelve sons. Yet Genesis is about first and foremost about God. In the face of evil, God is more than able to bring about his purposes for good.

Not long after, Rock embarked on a new adventure through the pages of Exodus, encountering the God who reveals himself as the compassionate and sovereign redeemer of his people, saving the Israelites from oppression and slavery under Pharaoh.

Awesome - Christmas Celebration

Last Christmas, we reflected on the awesome message of the birth of Jesus. Through carols, skits and yes, lots and lots of lovely food, we celebrated the miraculous Christmas story of the incarnation. Jesus Christ, fully God, came to earth, fully man.

In Luke Chapter 2, we met the angels, the shepherds and the mother of Jesus. There we identified with their joy, their amazement and their wonder over a baby born that night in the small town of Bethlehem. He is Christ the Lord!

Solid Rock 2010

The highlight of the year was our annual Solid Rock youth concert, held on the last Sunday of August. The theme was “The glory of Christ and the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Philippians 2 helped us see Jesus’ glory in his humility. Though being in very nature God, Jesus took the form of man, taking the nature of a servant and obeying his heavenly Father unto death - even a shameful death on the cross.

In preparing for this event, the youth worked hard, served sacrificially and shined for Jesus!

Summary of 2010 events

Chinese New Year Celebration: The Wedding Banquet
Ready, Steady, Cook! Youth cookout
Rock: Reunion dinner

Passion for Life Cambridge: Tim Keller on Counterfeit Gods
The God Confusion: London Men’s Convention

Chinese Cultural Evening: Rock @ Harry’s Cafe
Rock: Conclude series on Genesis

Solid Rock Concert

Rock: New series on Exodus
Sunday: New series on 1 Corinthians
Richard and Jessica’s wedding

Baptism: Winnie

Rock Fellowship Christmas Event
AWESOME: Christmas Celebration
VISA Course: Evangelistic bible study

Thursday 7 April 2011

The breakfast song

I am like this coupon, promise of greater things,
I am like this juice box, poured out as an offering,
I am like this cereal, special and sustained,
I am like this clay mug, treasure within contained.

Concentrated upon His saving grace,
Consecrated to serve Him all my days,
All consumed within this living space,
I'm your coupon, Lord, deposit of greater things.

Monday 4 April 2011

The danger of spiritualising gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

[Spiritual Gifts – Part 1]

Charismatic controversy

Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
1 Corinthians 12:1

There has scarcely been a topic more controversial and more confusing amongst Christians these past 50 years than that of spiritual gifts. And yet, Chapter 12 verse 1 has the apostle Paul clearly stating that he does not want Christians to be in the dark about spiritual matters. At the very least, this verse implies we should be willing to engage in conversation, or better still, be diligent in understanding clearly what the scriptures teach about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian Church.

At the forefront of the debate on spiritual gifts is the movement commonly known as the Charismatic Church. Its name comes from the Greek word, charismata, literally grace gifts; but from the context of its use in 1 Corinthians, is usually translated in our English bibles as spiritual gifts. Wikipedia – though not the most reliable, nor accurate of sources for theological definitions – nevertheless succinctly defines Charismatic Christianity as a “doctrine that maintains modern-day believers experience miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts.” We will soon encounter these charismata in verses 9 and 10 of our study.

On the other end of the spectrum are Cessationists, who as the term implies, believe that the age of tongues, prophecy and miracles have ceased.

It must be said that both these definitions are somewhat caricatures. The charismatic movement stretches across Protestant and Catholic lines, adopts varied levels of practice in public worship and different churches draw different conclusions for the same texts that teach on spiritual gifts (including the one we are looking at here). Similarly, Cessationism may or may not imply the practical restriction of such gifts, and churches may come to adopt such a position on scriptural or purely empirical (based on observation) grounds.

Still, it is tempting to hear in verse 1, the apostle Paul berating the conservative Christian for their ignorance on spiritual matters, thus taking the side of the Charismatic Church. Agnoein is where we get the word, agnostic. His readers are uninformed, perhaps even, misinformed on this important issue to do with spiritual gifts.

Yet any casual reader of Chapters 12 to 14 will immediately see a problem with that view. The Corinthians were not stuffy, conservative believers bereft of spiritual experiences. Theirs was a gifted church. If ever there was a charismatic church to be found in the New Testament, it was this one. Right from the beginning, Paul writes:

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
1 Corinthians 1:7

Paul’s opening remarks are therefore all the more striking. These Christians are not “noobs” when it came to spiritual gifts. And Paul says to them – to these Charismatic Christians, or you could even call them the CCCC, the Corinthian Charismatic Christian Church, as it were – Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant.”

Saying this to the Corinthians would be like saying to the Chinese Church, “You guys are ignorant about soy sauce!” And you would instantly reply, “But I’ve been eating soy sauce for years! Every meal I have has soy sauce in it. Every Chinese home has a big bottle of soy sauce – dark soy sauce, light sauce, sweet soy sauce, Kikkoman – I even have special soy sauce for chicken and a different one just for fish. What do you mean I’m ignorant about soy sauce? I’ve drunk more soy sauce that you’ve drunk milk!”

Yet, what Paul does not mean by ignorance, is absence. For the Corinthians, the problem is not that they don’t have evidences of these spiritual gifts. The problem is they don’t have insight. They do not know what it means to have spiritual gifts. So, it may shock you to know that Paul is speaking to gifted charismatic Christians, saying, “I don’t want you to be ignorant.”

But shocking still are the following verses.

Confusing confessions

2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:2-3

Here Paul contrasts their deeper ignorance before they became Christians, when they were “led astray” to worship idols. It doesn’t mean they fully knew what they were doing. Back home in Malaysia and Singapore, temple worshippers frequent shrines and practice ancestral worship, simply out of habit. It is tradition, we might say. It is what we Chinese do, we say; this is what we have always done for years. We visit Chinese temples; we have Chinese altars in our homes. Like the Corinthians, we were “influenced and led astray”.

Paul is essentially saying to the Corinthians is: In the same way, this is exactly how you are now using your spiritual gifts – unthinkingly, unconsciously and as we shall see, unlovingly – using these gifts given by God without regard to their true purpose in the church.

These really are hard words coming from the apostle Paul.

But what shall we make of verse 3? How do these pronouncements (“Jesus be cursed” and “Jesus is Lord”) helpfully tell us anything about spiritual gifts? Moreover, how could such a test ever be reliably administered? Absolutely no-one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit?

The issue begins to clear up when we see how Paul is not narrowly dealing with spiritual gifts. The word used in verse 1 is not charisma, commonly translated spiritual gifts, but pneumatikon, a word that can broadly cover spiritual issues, spiritual matters, or even spiritual people. The question that Paul is answering in these opening verses is therefore: Who has the Spirit of God? Who is the truly spiritual?

The answer has absolutely nothing to do with spiritual gifts. In essence, this is the root of their ignorance. The Corinthians have equated the presence of spiritual gifts – in particular, the gift of tongues – with the presence of the Holy Spirit, hence making tongues the criteria for assessing an individual’s authentic spirituality.

But Verse 3 is there to outline the character – not the criterion – of the truly spiritual Christian. The truly spiritual Christian is the man or woman who confesses Jesus as Lord. The point is not that, simply making this statement turns you into a Christian – though this is true in and of itself as Romans 10:9 clearly states (“That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”)

But Paul’s more foundational point is that the Holy Spirit is the very enabling source of the confession, “Jesus is Lord”. It is God’s Spirit reforming ours that makes it even possible for us to turn to Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour.

To put it simply, the spiritual person is the Christian. The Holy Spirit was responsible for the Christian turning to Christ in the first place.

Different distributions

Only after establishing the prior presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of any authentic confessing believer, does Paul move on to the manifestations of the Spirit in the life of the church.

4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
1 Corinthians 12:4-5

If all Paul wanted to say was that the Spirit gave different gifts (only here does the word charismata occurs for the first time in the chapter), there would be no need for verses 5 and 6. In fact, verse 7 (the manifestation of the Spirit) flows nicely from the argument of verse 4 (There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit).

Paul is therefore, not content, simply moving on to talk about charismata/gifts, but develops the definition of these gifts to include service (verse 5) and working (verse 6). Embedded in these verses, is the clear Trinitarian formula identifying the same Spirit, the same Lord and the same God as the single source and sustainers of these gifts.

Spiritual gifts are therefore not simply things or abilities. They encompass acts of service (verse 6) translating diakonion, which is a broad term that includes ministry in church (where we get the word for “deacons”) but also lowly table service (such as clearing dishes). “Service” ties in nicely with “the same Lord”, the focus of our service. We serve Christ; we glorify Christ through our service and through our gifts.

Spiritual gifts are also a work of God, literally, energised by God. I think of the Energizer bunny adverts. Without the energizing batteries, the pink toy bunny is lifeless and motionless, quite simply useless. God provides the work; God energizes the work, working all of them in all men. It expresses constant dependency on God who works all things for our good and his glory.

Finally, there are different kinds of these gifts/service/works, though the word diaireseis may imply more than mere differences or varieties (ESV) but distributions. The same God distributes the gifts of the Spirit across the body of Christ, such that they come together in service of God, but also as we will see in verse 7, in service of one another.

The common good

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:7

Paul summarises the distribution of spirituals gift/service/working as the “manifestation of the Spirit”; they display the Spirit in the individual (“each one”), but also in the corporate communion of believers. Verse 7 is the central purpose for spiritual gifts in the church. They are given “for the common good”.

What Paul is saying, therefore, is that God blesses us with spiritual gifts not simply for our personal encouragement and enjoyment. This is not wrong or sinful; yet this alone cannot be the purpose for our gifts. Rather, they are given us for the benefit of others in the church. They are given us for the common good.

Verses 8 to 11 therefore flow from this truth.

8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

We come now to a list: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, spiritual discernment, tongues and interpretation. If you look down to verse 28, Paul provides a second list of spiritual gifts. Comparing the two, some gifts are similar but others differ.

Altogether there are five such listings in the New Testament – two here in 1 Corinthians 12; the rest can be found in Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4. Pulling them together, we can make a few useful observations.

Firstly, none of these lists are meant to be complete. You are not meant to look through the twenty-plus items in these lists in search for your personal spiritual gift. Many aunties from the Chinese Church will be disappointed to know that cooking isn’t listed amongst these gifts. Neither is music, taekwondo nor web design. More seriously, though Paul explicitly identifies marriage and singleness as two charisma given by God in 1 Corinthians 7:7, these are not found here either.

Secondly, we cannot reliably assign rank and importance to each gift based on their order of appearance. Simply comparing the two lists here in Chapter 12, healing and miracles swap places; prophecy is 6th in the first list but comes in 2nd (though personified as “prophets”) in the next. Still, there is purpose to the order, as we shall see near the end of the chapter.

The question is: Why does Paul include these gifts here, and not others? Picking up previously from verse 7, these spiritual gifts are specifically chosen as examples of the “manifestation of the Spirit”. Some commentators therefore conclude that these are spectacular displays of the Spirit’s working in the life of the church. The manifestation of the Spirit is seen through supernatural displays of power. I think it would be even better to say that Paul chose these gifts that manifest the Spirit’s supernatural power through the gospel. Let’s look at each gift individual to see how this is so.

Gospel gifts

Wisdom and knowledge are recurring themes in the 1 Corinthians, especially when paired with the word “logos” or message. The Corinthians were enamoured with the eloquence and wisdom of their local philosophers and debaters, yet were somewhat embarrassed by the foolishness and weakness of the cross. Paul responds with the gospel – the announcement of Christ crucified, proclaiming the word of the cross as the source of true wisdom from God and salvation for man. The Corinthians prided themselves in their knowledge about God causing them to stumble weaker Christians in their faith. Paul exposes their empty knowledge that puffs up, advocating instead love, which builds up.

Hence Paul is not speaking of wisdom and the message as intrinsic personal qualities. Rather the message of wisdom and the message of knowledge are given by the Spirit through the message of the gospel.

Faith is appropriately listed next, as the proper response to the gospel. It means to trust wholly and completely in God. Paul mentions faith in the next chapter (“faith to remove mountains”) which have led some commentators to differentiate this from confessional saving faith, instead pointing to faith that produces miracles. However there Paul paints a negative picture of such great faith in the absence of love – “I am nothing”.

Jesus says something similar in Matthew 21:21, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.” It must be said, the point there is not the amount of faith that results in the miracle, but the absolute and resolute faith in God alone – Jesus qualifies, “and (you) do not doubt”. The faith that results in miracles is first and foremost, single-minded trust in God, and I wonder if Jesus was there using hyperbole to rebuke the disciples for not having such simple undivided faith.

The gifts of healing is interestingly, in the plural – both words, “gifts” and “healings”. This may not mean that one receives the ability to heal others. It may simply refer to someone receiving healing (hence the plural – “healings” given to those who need healing.) This gift is repeated in the second list of verse 28, where unlike prophecy (there, rendered “prophets”), it isn’t personified. That is, there is little warrant in this verse to justify the position of supernatural healer within the church. The gift of healing is given. The gift of being a healer is not (as much as the charisma of marriage does not refer to the art of match-making).

Miraculous powers – literally, “works of power” – is the same phrase found in Chapter 2, used to authenticate the Paul’s preaching ministry. There it is closely tied to the evidence of the Spirit working through Paul’s message of the gospel.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5

But what is the demonstration of the Spirit’s power there? Many will use this text to justify the use of signs and miracles, especially to accompany the preaching of the gospel; saying miracles authenticate the power of the gospel.

Yet Paul himself clarifies the true power of the gospel as the message of the cross in Chapter 1.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18

It is the power of God to save! The demonstration of the Spirit’s power, therefore is “your faith (that does) not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power” ie. the cross!

As tempting as it is to define miracles here as supernatural signs outside the preaching of the gospel, there is just so much evidence within 1 Corinthians itself that points to the supernatural work of the gospel. The Spirit changes hearts, engenders faith, and saves men and women through the cross. That is the power of God!

Prophecy is significant as Paul writes more extensively of this together with tongues, later in Chapter 14. Prophets in the Old Testament spoke on behalf of God. They were entrusted with his message and their job was to speak God’s words faithfully to his people. They were a select few, and often their job made them less than popular, especially when prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were tasked with delivering messages of condemnation for Israel’s sinfulness and rebellion.

When we come to the New Testament, Hebrews 1 draws a sharp contrast between the past age of the prophets and last days of the Son. Jesus is the final and complete revelation of God. God speaks to us today by his Son (literally, in his Son).

1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Hebrews 1:1-2

In short, everything that God has to say, he has said (past tense) through Jesus. Now, how does this square with prophecy described here as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12?

Some see here the fulfilment of Joel 2, reflected in the events of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2.

17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18

The day of Pentecost was marked by the supernatural giving of the Holy Spirit enabling the believers to speak in “other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. Peter therefore explains the phenomenon quoting the promises given through the prophet Joel that God would pour out his Spirit on all people, causing men and women to prophesy. In other words, Peter explains the tongues phenomenon by equating it with the gift of prophecy. In short, at Pentecost: Holy Spirit = tongues = prophecy.

What has happened here is 1 Corinthians 12 is that Paul has actually separated tongues from prophecy as two distinct gifts of the Spirit. The significance being, the tongues spoken by the Corinthians were different from those spoken by the first recipients of the Spirit. In Acts 2, men from various neighbouring countries, heard them praising God in their own languages. Conversely, the tongues spoken in the Corinthian church resulted in chaos and confusion.

Paul includes prophecy in this list, therefore, in anticipation of Chapter 14 when he will address the problem of tongues. We have here the beginnings of Paul’s argument in deconstructing the Corinthian’s misunderstanding of linking the presence of tongues as an essential criterion for the workings of the Spirit.

As for the nature of prophecy in relation to revelation, and what it looks like in practice in the church, I will come back to this when we study Chapter 14 in more detail. For now, we only note the distinctiveness of the gift of prophecy from tongues, yet its availability to all believers made possible through the giving of the Spirit.

Distinguishing between spirits often raises the question – What are these spirits? This text if frequently coupled with 1 John 4 (“Test the spirits to whether they are from God”) to explain supernatural battles with demons. This gift becomes a kind of inner sixth-sense, like Spider-man.

Keeping within the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul freely and repeatedly refers to his own inner “spirit” with which he prays (1 Corinthians 14:14, 15). He also speaks of the spirits of the Corinthians, as well as the spirits of prophets, always speaking of real people. And when you look at 1 John 4 in context, John is warning believers of false teachers, actual people leading believers astray. He calls them “spirits”.

The gift is not so much about spiritual beings, as it is about discerning spiritual teaching. Its use in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 John 4 refer to the ability to judge people’s words, motivations and doctrine specifically with regards to what they say to and about God.

Finally, we are left with tongues and the interpretation of tongues. In both lists found here in Chapter 12, tongues appear last. Charismatic scholars are quick to point out that this does not mean in any way that they are least in importance. II agree. The reason they appear last is because tongues are at the root of the problem in Corinth.

“Different kinds of tongues” literally says “various tongues”. But what are these tongues?

Some see this to mean human languages. We have briefly looked at Acts 2 when the disciples “began to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:2). From the perspective of the crowds however, what they heard were their own “native language” (literally, dialects) – “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” leading them to exclaim, “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Glosso can refer to the physical tongue, but here in Acts 2, it means language, and is equated at one point with even dialects. The phenomenon is termed xenoglossia – the ability to communicate in a foreign language.

What most Charismatics see here is called glossolalia (literally speaking in tongues; laleo means “to speak” and occurs later in the second list in verse 28). This is an ecstatic utterance by the believer as an expression of worship, prayer and communion with God. Paul refers to “tongues of angels” in 13:1, leading some to believe this gift enables the speaker to communicate in a heavenly language.

Which is it here – glossolalia or xenoglossia? I’m not going to tell you. I will leave that issue for when we come to Chapter 14.

Partly because I’m still thinking about itJ But mainly because it would distract from the main point Paul is making here in Chapter 12. We can neither promote tongues as an essential gift, nor deny tongues as an authentic spiritual gift – whichever your take on this verse is. Still, we will come back to this matter in due course.

Many gifts, one Spirit

The bigger issue is this: Paul wants us to see that there are different gifts; not one. He does not want us to focus on the gifts, but on the Spirit.

All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
1 Corinthians 12:11

When it comes to spiritual gifts, the Corinthians were obsessed with one question: Who has got it? That was the danger two-thousand years ago, it is the same problem we face today; Not that there are gifts, but that the gifts that make us special. We think that giftedness makes us spiritual.

The danger with that is: taken too far, some may mistake their giftedness for their salvation.

Paul is concerned to answer one important question: Who has the Spirit? The answer is simply: The one who confesses Jesus as Lord. That is the only reliable evidence of the Spirit. All who name Christ as their Lord have the Holy Spirit. This is the one key truth Paul does not want any believer to be ignorant about.

But additionally, in dealing with spiritual gifts, Paul gives us two important safeguards. Firstly, gifts are given us for the common good. They are not there simply for our personal enjoyment, ego or status in the church. They are given us to serve others in the body of Christ.

But secondly, the Spirit manifests different gifts. Each one has a gift. But each one receives a different gift. We see this in more detail in the next study where Paul moves on from the gifts of the Spirit, to speak about the members in the body.