North & East Network Bulletin, May 2013
Christmas morning can be a tantalising time for children, at least it seemed to be in our house when our children were younger. All the presents, neatly wrapped, are in full view under the tree and imaginations are now running riot, wondering what the different shapes will actually turn out to be. Yet they are still frustratingly out of reach, as the parents have determined that presents will be opened in an orderly fashion over a glass of fizz later in the morning after we have returned from church! However, every child has been allowed to open one present in advance to help them get through the next couple of hours. Not only is this a comfort for the moment, but it also serves to heighten the sense of anticipation as to what is very soon to come.
It is precisely this understanding and imagery which lies behind a good deal of what the New Testament has to say concerning the gift of the Spirit, and many of us have no doubt recently referenced it in our own preaching and teaching this Pentecost. The apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, uses the multilayered word ‘arrabon’ to explain something of the ministry of the Spirit in the lives of believers. I find it one of the most helpful terms in understanding the work of the Spirit in my own life and in terms of shaping my expectations concerning God. It bears a variety of meanings.
We recently bought our very first house. It was quite an exciting moment when we signed the contract and handed over the deposit. It was probably exciting too for those friends from whom we bought the house; the deposit was a portion of the total purchase price but it guaranteed that the remainder of the money, the full purchase price, was shortly to come their way. The Holy Spirit is a deposit of the full splendor of the age to come, invested by God into our lives ahead of time, but guaranteeing that the rest and the best is yet to come. More than that, he empowers and enables us, ahead of time, to live the future life, in part at least, in the present. He shapes our longings and desires to be more and more in conformity with those of the coming Kingdom, so that we are trained to love precisely the things which God himself loves. He forms us in God’s likeness so that our behaviour and our character begins to fall increasingly into line with those godly desires. He gives us power and authority to perform in the present those deeds which before Pentecost were associated exclusively with the age to come; the offering of salvation and reconciliation to lost people, healing for the sick and deliverance for the demonised and oppressed. He is given to us so that we might be, in our own persons, outposts of the coming Kingdom, signposts to God’s remarkable future which will one day come in all its fullness.
The Spirit is given not primarily to make us more comfortable and settled in this present age, but rather to give us more and more a longing for the coming age of which he is simply an appetiser, a foretaste. We are often asked, and may indeed often wonder ourselves, what the age to come will actually be like. My best way of answering this question is to reflect on those moments of most intense Holy Spirit encounter, times when I have most clearly experienced the presence and power of the Spirit in and around me. That, I guess, is the closest sense I have of what ‘Heaven’ will be like. Those are the times when I find myself most clearly expressing a longing for this age to end and to be in the immediate presence of Jesus. Our churches are designed by God to be places where the reality of Heaven is apparent, where those who join us for worship or other activities leave with a clearer sense of his reality and immediacy, where Heaven touches Earth. We need to be intentional in allowing the Spirit to make his presence felt, to have free reign in all we are and all we do.
A seal in this context is an engraver’s stamp, a mark of ownership. More than anything else, the gift of the Spirit is the assurance to us of the truth that we belong to God, that we are members of his people. It is the Spirit (Gal 4:6) who causes us to cry out to God ‘My Father’, who witnesses deep within our very being that we are owned by God and precious to him, that nothing can separate us from his love. One of the biggest hindrances to effectiveness in life, in ministry and in leadership, is a lack of assurance of God’s true love for and acceptance of us. A frightening number of us are effectively ministering and leading, whether consciously or subconsciously, in order to gain God’s approval and affirmation. We may not acknowledge it openly, but the reality is often more evident than we realise. The only truly effective way to live and serve is from a deep-seated understanding that we are really loved, that God delights in us, and nothing that we do can alter this fact one way or the other. One of the most vital reasons for pursuing a deeper encounter with God and a fuller experience of the presence of the Spirit is that this alone can properly centre us and set us free from the compulsion to ‘perform’ in order to gain God’s favour. He is the one who brings the freedom which God plans and purposes for all his people.
Our children usually seemed to love the first present they opened on Christmas Day, but that pleasure only seemed to give them a greater enthusiasm to open the rest! May our current experience of the Holy Spirit set our hearts longing not only for more of him in the present, but for the coming of the Kingdom in all its fullness, the place of our true belonging.
New Wine Regional Director, North & East
Follow Ian on twitter @Ian_Parkinson_