Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Elusive Gay Gene

The Elusive Gay Gene

I write this as a response to various discussions in which I have been involved. As a professing Bible-believing Christian, I hold the view that God intended and created marriage as the vehicle in which sexual union is licenced between one man and one woman. And that the Bible quite plainly teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is not in accord with His intentions – His ‘blueprint’ for mankind. Inevitably, in our current social climate, this exposes me to accusations of ‘homophobia’, bigotry – and many other appellations which accompany the outrage which is stirred when someone declares a belief that goes against the ‘PC’ ruling. I refuse to be ‘speech-policed’ or ‘thought-policed’ by bullying attitudes and reactions which will not tolerate disagreement. But I do wish to lay out, so that it can be clearly seen and understood, some of the thinking behind the view I hold.

First let me say that my personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ has imbued my old, stubborn, selfish heart with new life and new love. That happened over fifty years ago. I can honestly say that I bear no hatred whatsoever for any other mortal man or woman. Indeed, God’s Spirit within me presses me to do good indiscriminately to all, even to those with whom I disagree on any count. So the accusation that because of what I believe about sexuality, and the fact that I hold that homosexual activity goes against the moral directives of God to man, as explained in the Bible – the accusation that this causes me to ‘hate’ gays is totally false and unfounded. Indeed, those who have made that accusation online have no grounds or basis to do so; they know relatively nothing about me, and thus their attitude is judgmental in the extreme. So I refute that I am 'homophobic' in any way, shape or form.

Second, let me say that the reason I hold what I hold is because the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles in the New Testament leave me no alternative to believe otherwise – I am convinced that this is what the text says. And as a Christian, I view the Bible as God’s infallible word – His prescription for all I believe and how I live out my faith. If anyone would persuade me that I am wrong, let him (or her) do so from these Scriptures. Passages such as Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 vs 9 and 1 Timothy 1 vs 10. I have read arguments that seek to explain away these direct references to the issue. I do not find those arguments any more than poor efforts at exegesis and exposition. They ‘fudge’ the text in order to reach conclusions they have already decided they wish to reach. That is not the way to read God’s revelatory word.

Third, and this is my main reason for writing here, I do not find that current or previous efforts to isolate and identify a genetic predisposition to homosexuality have been successful at all. And this despite the apparent common acceptance that it has been ‘proven’ beyond doubt. This assertion turns out to be an ‘urban myth’. There is no such absolute conclusion that has been reached on the subject.

When we examine the studies that have been conducted, we need to be careful that we do not swallow wholesale everything that is put before us. If we are not to be hoodwinked, there are some things to bear in mind. I will suggest a few:

1.       Media reporting – even the BBC – is often biased and prejudiced, and this bias will not always be either declared or obvious. The presentation of facts is often selective and incomplete. Thus we cannot rely on TV reports, newspapers or Internet to give us a reliable base without knowing ‘where’ they are coming from.

2.       The studies themselves will have been conducted by scientists or researchers ‘with an agenda’. The whole methodology of hypothesis-antithesis sets out to prove/disprove something. The statement of that ‘something’ will have been formed by a human mind with its own limitations and restrictions. To properly evaluate the results, we need to know the ‘slant’ that is being placed on the results.

3.       This means that the facts brought to light by experimentation/observation must be what we look at, not just the conclusions the experimenters have drawn from those facts, which will display (betray?) their particular bias.

4.       Experiments are not infallible. Methodology can be flawed, sampling can be biased, and unconsidered factors can intrude. Thus reproducibility of results is one of the requirements before the results of any one experiment can be accepted as valid.

With all this in consideration, my current awareness of the state of play to date is as follows:

1.       No single gene which disposes homosexuality has been identified, despite many decades of its being searched for.

2.       Experiments and studies which claim positive or significant results in this light have subsequently been challenged on various counts, and have not been possible to reproduce. Without exception!

3.       There has been indication that multiple genetic factors may – may – dispose humans towards sexual preference. But these, even when accumulated, can be easily overridden by choice or ignored. In other words, this combined genetic ‘prod’ amounts to nothing more than a mild influence, not a driving force.

I ask that others correct me if they know different. But the conclusion I have to reach here is that despite vigorous and intensive looking for ‘the gay gene’, nothing has emerged which is in any way convincing. And claims to the contrary are exaggeration or just wishful thinking.

Bottom line – no-one is ‘born gay’.

As an addendum, let me say that the argument that we observe homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom is also unconvincing. Why this should dispose humans to act in the same way, or to excuse their doing so, is beyond me! Certainly there are other ways in which animals act that we would never dream of emulating or excusing - like fighting to the death to eliminate competitors for leadership, for example. And anyway, studies show that where same-sex acts are performed by certain animals, this does not exclude 'normal', heterosexual activity which is essential for their continued survival. There are no exclusively 'gay' animals. And there are assuredly no progeny of such creatures, even if they do exist!


Monday, 8 May 2017

The Ultimate Imperative


Having spent quite some time thinking about the New Testament's use of the imperative mood, and after exposing what a wide range of meanings it is used for, from requests to military-style commands, my thoughts turned to what could be called the ultimate imperative. Which is, of course,God's own use of the command. The proclamation which does not ask for obedience because His word in and of itself has power to achieve what it declares. For example, the creation word which begins the whole Bible, and the book of Genesis - the book of 'beginnings'.

"And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light."
(Genesis ch 1 vs 3)

That's some imperative. Literally, it says "LIGHT - BE!" We just don't have the tense flexibility to represent it properly. When you think about it, this is command at a level which is not possible for humans at all. Only God's word can accomplish what He sends it forth to do - without agency. When we humans issue commands, we are completely dependent upon someone else receiving our command and executing it - an 'agent'. Even if it is just the dog! Another living being has to be the recipient of the command and decide, whether coerced or not, to fulfill it. Without which, it doesn't get done. But God doesn't have that restriction at all.

The Faith Factor

 In fact, the whole essence of faith is the realisation that everything depends on this invisible word of the Almighty. Hebrews tells us:

"By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." (ch 11vs 3)

That can only be 'seen' by faith. It's a tacit realisation that this is the way things work. Mind-blowing, isn't it, to appreciate that what we perceive as the so-solid, physical universe actually relies for its existence on something completely intangible. Faith says 'what God says goes. And comes. And is!'

So when we hear the promises of God concerning and unseen future, or our unseen hearts, or our unseen Lord, it is faith that insists that even though we can't perceive these things with our five senses, nevertheless they are realities. And we trust them completely. That faith rocks the world!

The Mystique of Magic

The history of our race demonstrates the preoccupation many have had with 'magic'. Childrens' fairy stories and adult fiction too entertains us with the idea of someone, somewhere being able to control the inanimate with a word of command - a spell. Harry Potter. Witches and wizards. Superstition. All ideas about our own tight control over our environment, and bending it to our will. But of course, it's just impossible, and may be our hankering after wanting to be our own God. To be able to do for ourselves what He does.

God's Perogative

As believers, we attribute great majesty to Him for this very thing:

"I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me? " (Jeremiah 32 vs 27)

And of course, when Jesus stands in a fast-filling boat in the midst of a stormy sea and commands 'peace' to the winds and the waves - and all is still, He is demonstrating that He has this power of command, and thus He is God. Well might the disciples frame their question.

The centurion, of whom Jesus marvelled at his faith, got this, didn't he? Remember what he says to Jesus? Luke 7:

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it."

He sees - amazingly - that this is none other than God in human form, and that He has the power of God-speech. If Jesus just 'says it', it will be!

Indeed, the Lord didn't even have to utter words. When the devil throws in His face the worst case of demon-possession there ever was, the demons are reacting before He even speaks out loud:

"For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”"
(Mark 5 vs 8)

God-speech for the New Creation

But it isn't just the creation 'ex-nihilo' of our universe. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, has this to say about our new life in Christ:

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

Which brings the whole thing right home to us. We are a 'new creation' And God has brought this about by the same means - by commanding in our very being "let there be light" - that oh so powerful ultimate imperative. And there WAS light - there IS light. In you. In me. The light of the glory of God.

God-speech in Transformation?

So when it comes to Christian obedience, I wonder whether more is going on in our Spirit-filled hearts than just the process:

1. God speaks
2. I hear
3. I obey (or not)

I wonder whether the command-voice of God is at work here too. That when we 'hear' an instruction to do with our living out the life He has given us, there is that same empowering - on an ongoing basis, as we walk in the Spirit. And that whereas the process I have just outlined is how law works, this is precisely what the New Testament means when it insists that believers are not 'under law'. And that this is why His word is described as a 'living word'. So, we get what Paul says in Philippians 2 vs 12 & 13:

"... continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose."

- which really reads as:

"... continue to demonstrate in your lives your salvation ... for it is God who energises you to will and act ..." (two different words for 'work')

Hmm - food for thought!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

John's use of 'anomos' in 1 John 3


Various ‘agendas’ make some want 1 John 3 vs 4 to read as the KJV and other translations have it:

“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.”

The trouble is that the original Greek does not have the words ‘transgress’, ‘transgression’ – these were added by the translators, and place a specific interpretation upon the text. The ESV is the preferred translation:

“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (vs 4)

Literally, John says:

“Everyone who is doing the sin is also doing the lawlessness and the sin is the lawlessness”

I have argued that this is indicating precisely the adverse – ‘transgression’ requires the law to be present, whilst ‘lawlessness’ indicates that there is no law in play. That said, some will still insist on arguing that ‘anomia’, the root word for ‘lawlessness’ means the breaking of law rather than the lack of it – and it can! So the matter must be decided upon other grounds, and, as always, context is prime.

John’s Argument

The issue, then, is not what we would like it to say in order to support some over-riding doctrinal persuasion from elsewhere. What is John’s point?

Lawlessness vs righteousness

Prominent and obvious is his use of a parallel expression by contrast:

“Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” (vs 7)

Or literally,

“Whoever is doing the righteousness is righteous.”

We can see that the sentence structure is identical. The point being that it is the ‘doers doing’ that indicates the nature of the ‘doer’. Plain and simple.

The Argument

Following John’s line or argument from the beginning of the chapter, we can see him saying:

1. That we are called the children of God demonstrates His great love for us

2. Thus as with Him, so with us – the world does not know us

3. We are His children now, and what we will be ‘has not appeared’ yet

4. But when He ‘appears’ (same word) we will be like Him

5. This hope means we purify ourselves as he is pure (so that we are like Him)

Now, this point:

6. Those whose lifestyle is ‘sinning’ are also doing ‘anomian’; sinning is ‘anomia’

7. (But)   Christ appeared to remove our sins – in Him is no sin

8. No-one who is in Him (therefore) can carry on sinning – to do so demonstrates that they are nothing to do with him

The line of logic plainly indicates that John is not making a statement about ‘law’ at all. He is elaborating “by their fruits you will know them”. The nature of the children of God cannot result in a perpetually sinning lifestyle. Where we see that lifestyle, we are to conclude that those are not God’s children.

The Common Use of ‘Anomia’

We must allow common usage of language in and around the time that the various New Testament documents are written and circulated to inform how we read them. What did the original recipients understand by what is said? For that will be our basic meaning too. Davison has this to say:

“In sum, anomos and its cognates almost always mean evil, wicked, or sinful in Jewish literature before 70CE, and the vast majority of examples refer to Jews or to the wicked in general and not to gentiles.”

So we see that even Jews – who had the Law – can be ‘lawless’.

From “The Encyclopaedia of Identity”:

“Anomia re-emerged in the Greek Old Testament around the 3rd century BCE as a translation for about 20 different Hebrew words that corresponded to English terms such as wickedness, evil, sin and iniquity. Anomia was seen as a general moral term and the polar opposite of moral law. In the New Testament, the meaning of the term was extended to include unbelief and the rejection of Christ as the son of God”

‘A general moral term’, then, for wickedness, evil, sin, iniquity.

From Gutbrod:

“In Judaism ho anomos or hoi anomoi is a common term for gentiles. Here it is hard to distinguish a mere affirmation that they do not have the law and a judgement that they are sinners. In general the latter view seems to predominate.”
So, predominantly, a derogatory - or, at least, contrasting - term meaning ‘sinners’.

One more – from “A Commentary on the Letters of John: An Intra-Jewish Approach” by Birger Olsson:

"… the letter does not support viewing the reference as an offense against the Law of Moses. … In apocalyptic texts the word anomia most readily carries the sense of lawlessness, godlessness, rebellion against God. The evidence for such an apocalyptic content is manifold … the sense of transgression against the Law of Moses is not attested in the NT."


Thus it would seem the consensus agrees that ‘anomia’ generally is synonymous with ‘wicked’ and ‘anomos’ means ‘wickedness’ – moral deficit. It is not a specific reference to the law of God being broken … UNLESS the context, as in Romans 2, indicates specifically that that is what is being spoken of.

To impose that meaning on the text contorts it and makes it say what it does not say.

Imperative Imposters?


Some New Covenant Theology adherents want to insist that even in the new covenant, whilst
expounding vigorously that believers are not under the old covenant Law, nevertheless they ARE under a new kind of law. They would call this 'the Law of Christ', using Paul's phrase from Galatians 6. When asked how we are supposed to discover what, precisely, this law contains, various answers are given. A common one is to assert that 'the Law of Christ' is made up of all of the 'imperatives' of the New Testament - the command-style statements made through those writings. And that these are the new-law 'commandments' which we are supposed to be obeying. However, on closer examination, this definition proves to be woefully inadequate on various counts. And one problem is the Greek use of the imperative 'mood'. Here is a quick survey of Greek verbs:

"Ancient Greek verbs have four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and optative), three voices (active, middle and passive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and three numbers (singular, dual and plural).

In the indicative mood there are seven tenses: present, imperfect, future, aorist (the equivalent of past simple), perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect. (The last two, especially the future perfect, are rarely used). In the subjunctive and imperative mood, however, there are only three tenses (present, aorist, and perfect). The optative mood,
infinitives and participles are found in four tenses (present, aorist, perfect, and future) and all three voices. The distinction of the "tenses" in moods other than the indicative is predominantly one of aspect rather than time."

Greek, then, is much more precise than English, and sometimes our translators have struggled to adequately represent what is being said. They do a valiant job. Just, sometimes, we need to know a little more so that we do justice to all that the text is saying.

Imperatives have 'strength'

We must also see that all imperatives are not equal. They vary in ‘strength’. In other words, there are ‘levels’ of commanding, and this can be quite adequately seen in English. James L Boyer says:

“Much popular exegesis of the Greek imperative mood rests on unwarranted assumptions. Analysis of the actual usage of the imperative in the NT reveals that many common exegetical conclusions regarding the imperative are unfounded. For example, a prohibition with the present imperative does not necessarily mean "stop." And when it does, it is context, not some universal rule of the imperative, that determines the meaning. The imperative mood has a wide latitude of meanings from which the exegete must choose in light of contextual clues. The temptation to standardize the translation of the various imperatival usages should be resisted.”
Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 35-54.

Even in our own language, we can see that imperatives can be used in different ways. Let’s take a single-word imperative – “Go!” – and see if I can illustrate.

  1. Encouragement – “Go for it” (implies ‘you CAN do it’)
  2. Exhortation - “Go on – shoot!” (as my football team’s striker nears the goal)
  3. Direction - “Go left at the next junction” (Satnav command)
  4. Authoritative - “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”
There are probably others. What determines? Context, of course. Boyer, again:

"Commands include a broad spectrum of concepts--injunctions, orders, admonitions, exhortations--ranging from authoritarian dictates (a centurion ordering his soldier to go or come, Matt 8:9), to the act of teaching (Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:2, cf. 12ff.). Commands are distinguished from requests as "telling" is from "asking." The distinction, however, is not made by the mood used but by the situation, the context. They are used in the language of superiors to subordinates and of subordinates to superiors, and between equals."

To reiterate, Greek is far more ‘analytical’ than English. It has more tenses. And tenses have moods. As an example of this, there is a ‘mood’ in Greek called a ‘hortatory subjunctive’. It converts an imperative into an exhortation – usually translated ‘Let us’. But it is still an imperative. See, for example, Galatians 5 vs 26 

“Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another”. 

So what we might conceive of as New Testament ‘laws’ aren’t to be read indiscriminately as such, even if we take the view that the ‘law of Christ’ consists of all of its imperatives. For example, there are imperatives in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Are we, then, commanding God? Of course not.

Simply, imperatives are not always ‘imperative’! Read Boyer's article.

An Inadequate Definition

What I am seeking to demonstrate is that if this ‘law of Christ’ is going to be loosely defined as consisting of “all of the imperatives of the New Testament”, this is woefully inadequate. It does not give us enough basis for us to be able to decide what is ‘in’ and what is not. Which imperatives? How do we know? Second, we have no information about what the first church considered to be a part of it, and no way of deciding that. And what happens, without exception, with those who hold this is that they utterly fail to even attempt a definitive description. It is simply left as an extremely loose assertion, which is somehow expected to be convincing.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Paul's Use of "Ennomos" in 1 Corinthians 9

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes this intriguing statement:

" To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law." (vs 21)
Elsewhere, he repeatedly and pointedly states that believers are not 'under law'. It might seem, therefore, that he contradicts himself. But if we have a consistent view of God's word, we know that this cannot be so. It is the Holy Spirit who is the author behind the author of every written part of our Bible, and it is inconceivable that He argues against himself. So, we who take this view must seek to understand what is going on here.

Some have taken this verse and, standing it alongside Galatians 6 vs 2, which speaks of believers 'fulfilling the law of Christ', have constructed a kind of 'believers' law' which stands in the new covenant where the Law of Moses stood in the old. But what of Paul's emphatic insistence that those who are in Christ are NOT under law?

Countering this argument, others have noted that the actual words used in 1 Corinthians 9 are not 'hupo nomos' - 'under law', but 'ennomos', which, strictly translated, means 'in-lawed' to Christ. Their opponents argue back that this is splitting Greek hairs, and that the two terms are virtually synonymous. I have considered this discussion for some time, and have recently come across something which may well throw all the light on it that we will ever need! But before I reveal this enlightenment, let me explain why I am not happy that this verse speaks of believers being 'under law'.

The Perspicuity of Paul

Historically, Protestants have argued for a doctrine known as 'the perspicuity(clarity) of Scripture'. This states that:
...those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (1646 Westminster Confession of Faith)
So, within this, we can also expect Paul to be plain in what he says. It would be no exaggeration to describe this learned, skilled Apostle as 'God's mastermind'. It is not for nothing that God used him to write 13 of the 29 documents which comprise our New Testament. Their contribution to our understanding of our faith is inestimable. And we can trust utterly his grasp, and his expression, of what God commissioned him to communicate - to the first church and to us. His extensive Jewish scholarly background, his understanding of the cultures of the churches he was writing to, and, not least of all, the enlightenment and Godly training of the risen Christ in his life had sharpened this finest of 'God's tools in the toolbox' to the nth degree and fit him for God's purpose. And yet he knows he writes to untrained men and women, non-scholars, in the various places in which God has used him to plant and nurture churches. So he, and the Spirit through him, ensures that his language is, as far as possible, plain and succinct. He writes to be understood!

When it comes to him using a different word from the usual and expected one in the context of 1 Corinthians 9, then, my suspicions are aroused. Why does he not just say,
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law."
... using 'huper nomos' as would be perfectly reasonable? Surely, if he wanted to make that point abundantly clear, beyond the realms of conjecture, he could so easily have done so. But what he does is to state,
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but in-lawed to Christ."
Notice that what has happened is that the object of the sentence is different to the way most of our translations present it - Paul's object is Christ, not law. I don't think that is accidental. 'In-lawed' at least, here, becomes descriptive of the way he, as a believer, is related 'to Christ' - he is not 'under ...', he is 'in-lawed'. Whatever else is going on, that at least, is significant, and I don't think we can reasonably just shrug shoulders and say "but he meant 'under the law ...'"

And then again, if the maxim of believers yet being 'under law' is so important, why is it not everywhere and all through his letters, employing this word freely and liberally? Why only once, and only to Corinth?

All Greek To Me

So here is the shaft of bright sunlight! I am indebted to a very thorough study by Fred Naiden in his book titled "Ancient Supplication". It gets a bit technical, but I will try to keep my explanation simple.

First, note that Paul is writing to the church at Corinth - a Greek church. For many years, that great city functioned almost as the capital. Their society had inherited the full complement of the Greek pantheon of gods, and now, added to all of them, were the extra Roman ones. Temples abounded, and the practice of the worship of their gods was 'sewn in' to their society - extremely deeply embedded.

When we examine the way that their religious system operated, we will immediately notice that for both Greeks and Romans, there was no distinction between 'politics' and 'religion'. In other words, the two were intertwined, and the ruling authorities legislated in matters of worship. As a member of that society, the plan was first to choose the right god for the right cause, the right occasion. You then had to gain their attention somehow, and present your particular request for their benevolence, in whatever way you needed it. This was a complex business. If you got it wrong - by presenting the wrong oblation, on the wrong altar, at the wrong time - you could incur wrath and blight instead of the favour you sought. And ... not only for you, but for anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity at the time your displeased deity was visiting his/her wrath on you (think Jonah in his storm-beleaguered ship). So it was expedient for the government to do whatever they could to make sure that only those who 'qualified' could actually even get to the altar. They had to 'apply', and they were called 'suppliants'.

Here is what Naiden has to say:
Supplication incorporates divine sanctions against perjury and against the expulsion of the innocent from altars and divine injunctions to allow a suppliant to approach and have his request heard.
… it also incorporates numerous regulations passed by the assembly of any given community, notably Athens. For their part, the gods endorse sanctions, injunctions and regulations. For its part, the assembly addresses every part of the practice. Besides regulating how citizens deal with one another and with the community, it regulates how the community deals with the gods."
Their application was duly considered by a Council, or an Assembly. And if they were found to be ok - guess what

- their 'supplication' was said to be 'ennoma', and they were said to be 'ennomos'! Naiden again (he is taking specific examples from Greek literature to illustrate his point):
No matter what the suppliant’s station and request, the supplication that he or she makes must be ennoma, or the suppliant must be ennomos – the Samian formulation. The moral side of these terms appears in the assertion that Dioscurides is worthy. But the legal side is larger and more complex. In regard to the first two steps, ennoma or ennomos means that the suppliant is eligible to supplicate and has done so at the right time. Ennomos in the Samian inscription supplies the first meaning, “eligible to supplicate”, and ennoma in the Attic inscriptions supplies the second meaning, which is presenting oneself at the right time. In regard to the last two steps, ennoma complements hiketeuin as a verb of speaking and means that the suppliant has made a lawful request. Finally, since the lawful request has led to the passage of a decree granting honours, annoma also means that the supplication has proved “valid”, a sense of ennoma in other legislative contexts."
Thus, we see that the word 'ennomos' has specific meaning for Paul's hearers, within the Graeco-Roman religious culture of the day. It is in common usage, and it is transparently understood.

1 Corinthians 9 vs 21 in New Light

Paul loves playing on words. And he is not averse to 'borrowing' a word or two from the current climate and making it work for him. He does it in Galatians with the Roman practice of 'paedagogue'. And it is my persuasion that he does it here too. This also explains why

a) It is done specifically with the Greek-backgrounded church of Corinth

b) He never uses this rather loaded term again elsewhere. Perhaps he can get away with it once, because these people knew what he was referring to (and now, we do!). But doesn't want to make it major.

So what is Paul doing with this word in this verse?

First we see, that this use is as an illustration of his main point, which is all about Christians foregoing their 'rights' out of love for one another. He says to the Corinthians, "and this is what I have done in my preaching of the gospel - I have 'become all things to all men'". Then follows the Jew/Gentile/weak elaboration. And he wants to emphasise that becoming like a Jew does NOT mean coming again under law. And then, that becoming like a Gentile does not mean being 'outside (the meaning of the old English word 'without') God's law'. Rather in respect of God's law, he is 'ennomos' - he has been granted 'licence', or 'legitimate status' to supplicate to Christ - to present worship and prayer to Christ. Here, then, is as much of 'law' as Paul is wanting to make claim to, and what it gives him is the right of approach; of full access. And not just to a god who is no god, but to the risen Christ.

Thus we can see that even though it makes reference to both 'law' and to 'Christ', this verse, in all probability, has nothing to do with what Paul speaks of in Galatians 6, and that to 'patch' those two verses together actually makes something of nothing.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Denominations and Differences – Design or Disaster?

It is not uncommon to hear Christians voicing deep concern and regret about today’s world-wide church scene. The proliferation of denominations is seen as a gross indication of the failure of Christianity to maintain her unity through the ages. One parody of a well-known hymn, which I heard in the late sixties went like this:

Like a mighty tortoise
Moves the church of God.Brothers, we are treadingWhere we’ve always trod.We are all divided,Many bodies, we,Strong in faith and doctrine,Weak in charity!

Critical and mournful statements galore abound. In the view of those who speak thus, the church has fragmented and splintered, and has moved away from the original intention of the Saviour. They cite His prayer in John17 – 

“… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17 vs 21)

If you heed the doomsayers, since the New Testament church, it has and is all going devastatingly wrong, with so many denominations arguing with each other and not enough emphasis being placed on ditching the differences and pitching in to evangelising the world. So what the world sees when it looks at ‘the church’ is a feuding, squabbling collection of argumentative factions, all convinced that their group is ‘most right’ and all the others are wrong. Some go further and say that this will only be remedied when ‘the church’ discovers its unity once more and stops messing about!

I don’t buy it!

And the major reason I will not accept that that is the conclusion we ought to reach is that I wholely believe that God knows what he is doing. Are we really to accept that the history of the church, through the centuries, has completely run away from Him, and become something He never intended? Or do we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is as much the head of His body, the church, today as ever He was when He first founded her through His Apostles? Are we to think that His declared aim for His bride, which is:

"… to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5 vs 27)

 … on the final Day, will be thwarted? Or do we trust that He is yet working towards that end with all the work, within the saints, of the Spirit He fills them with, and that the gates of hell will, indeed, not prevail? It seems to me that those who are being so negative, and are so ready to widely criticise the church in the world are actually lacking faith in the promises of Christ, however ‘non-visible’ it would appear that they are actually being fulfilled. We should yet assert, boldly, that

“ … I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1 vs 12)

You see that the strength of this promise lies not in the ‘entrusting’ but in the ‘keeping’. Who does that? God does; the One in whom we have believed – not us. He persuades us that HE is able. It’s His work to do that, not ours. Will He do it? Of course He will. He is God! After all, whose church are we? We are Christ’s church, from first to last, and He IS building us. And who can destroy what He builds?

If we have such a ‘down’ on the church and on our age, we are doubting God’s control of history, and the plan He has to bring everything into subjection, to place it at the feet of His Son. We may now see how He is achieving this, but we must believe that He is. At the end of time, the verdict will not be that He saved His children in spite of history. It will be that all history served Him to save them.

Of Motives and Mistakes

I am not saying that the church through the ages has not made mistakes, and has not ofttimes behaved abominably towards fellow-believers who have not held their particular viewpoint on one thing or another. I am not saying that some of the things over which there has been bitter division have not been trivial incidentals over which mature men and women of God ought to have known better and behaved in a more Christ-like manner. And we need to bear in mind that future saints of God may look at the differences we hold as majorly important, in retrospect, and judge these in the same way. But someone has said that wisdom in hindsight is as good as giving a bald man a comb! Too late, we cry! It all seems so vital when we are actually in the midst of the argument. And demonstrates our deep desire to be doing the truths of our God justice, and to be living consistently with them and by them. Let us not quickly dismiss the passion of those hearts of Christians in the past who have done what they could to defend God’s word. We bear them witness that they had a zeal for God – and Christ – however unenlightened we might now see that it was in some respects, at least.

But let us say more about that passion. Is it not precisely that desire to see the Biblical tenets vindicated that have also protected the core-church of Christ from so many heresies? Is it not true that brave souls have withstood the fiery breath of hell in its endeavour to burn out saving grace and silence the saving gospel? If there had not been men and women of that spirit, surely the great Christian truths of salvation and grace would have been buried long ago under the amassed doctrines of heresy. What of the Reformation? Even if they did not ‘get it all right’, and reformation needs to be ongoing, when they stood against the vast might of Pope and priests, nailing theses to doors, resisting scathing criticisms, political pressures, and even outright persecution, were they not displaying something as noble as the three, in Daniel’s day, who refused to bow the knee to Babylon’s king, choosing to trust God ‘even though He slay them’? Do we so easily demean such faith? Is it not by such as these that Almighty God has preserved His people for Himself through the ages? 

Surely, there is nothing wrong with this. We must not downplay it. We must look to the direction in which it is aimed. It is the target at which the arrow is pointed which must be determined properly, not the force behind it which should be weakened. Such passion, I say, is essential to the church’s ongoing existence, and it derives from hearts on fire with love for God and concern for the things of Christ. Who would want to extinguish that fire?

Branching, not Fragmentation

So let us do a little examination of the church ‘family tree’, as it has grown through the years. And this by way of some general observations, in a positive light, rather than looking at specifics. It may help us to see how we have ‘evolved’ to become so diverse, even amongst those congregations who would deem themselves ‘orthodox, conservative evangelicals’ (and I make no attempt to define what that means here). How, then, have these divisions come about?

The departure of the antichrists

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2 vs 19)

John describes these as ‘mini antichrists’. There will be one, great Antichrist before Jesus returns. But before he comes, his like will be amongst the churches, and will reveal themselves in this way. They may begin within the church proper, but they will not remain. Unable to tolerate sound doctrine, and the Spirit of Christ, they move on. But we must ask what becomes of them? What do they ‘go out’ to? To disappear forever? To vanish into the air? Well, maybe some do. But others will form their own gatherings, collected around their errors. They will become cults and sects – even entire other religions – in their own right, pseudo-Christian and deficient, but with the appearance, to the undiscerning, of that from which they came – the true church. Their doctrine will be deadly, and they will not show forth the fruit of Christ, of His Spirit, in their lifestyle. Indeed, it is against such as these that John writes his first letter. Rapidly after the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost, as Paul predicts at Ephesus:

“ I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard.”(Acts 20 vs 29, 30)

Two sources, then, of these disruptive influences – both from without and within. As the hymn ‘The church’s one foundation’ puts it:

“… with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed,by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,”

Their aim? To draw away disciples after them’ – to gain a following at the expense of the real church of Christ. Their method? They will ‘distort the truth’. These, then, are predicted by your Bible. They are now, in our world, fully-fledged, fully grown organisations and religions in their own right. You see them, don’t you?

The Distinctives of Difference

So we see that competing with the churches who hold to the truth – the ‘orthodox’ – we will have alongside us those so-called churches who do not. This is anticipated by God’s word – no surprises. But also, we have these distinct ‘movements’ who, for all their differences, hold to the God of the word and the word of God. The differences between them are over what are often termed ‘secondary doctrines’, that is to say aspects of faith which do not damage or destroy the Gospel. And it is these that the saints so often sigh over. ‘Would that it were not so’, say many. ‘Oh that we were combined and united in our agreement of what the Scriptures teach’. Well, I am going to argue that although ‘we’ might have done it differently, this is all in the plan of God – is necessary to that plan for the development and perfection of the bride of Christ in preparation for His coming. My reason? Just that otherwise, it would not be so, it would not be happening.

Another trait we can trace through history is that as new truth is rediscovered from God’s word (after so much was lost in the institutionalising of the faith which became the Roman Catholic church), so new movements emerge to maintain them. It works something like this:

  • The ‘mainline church’ (Group A)  has a body of doctrine which it holds as valid
  • Something is discovered in the Scriptures that shows that that body of doctrine is in some way deficient.
  • A group is formed (Group B) of those who hold to the ‘difference’ – and they make much noise about it
  • Group A disagrees and wants to maintain its assertions, its status quo
  • Group B splits off in order to establish and preserve their new-found truth and awareness of the Scriptures

Let’s be clear that we are not here speaking of the emergence of error, but the emergence of truth. This ‘truth’ could be one of two types:

  • A difference of doctrine – what is believed
  • A difference of practice – what is done, or how it is done

So we now have two streams, one ‘old school’ and one ‘new school’. Both hold to the basic Biblical doctrines regarded as essential for salvation. But in faith and practice, perhaps both, there is now not only disagreement, but segregation between Group A and Group B. I would argue that this process is inevitable. It is also necessary in order to keep the discovered truth, else it would be ‘reabsorbed’ and buried again. And each new group has the ‘potential’ to divide again. History has demonstrated it time and time again. I suggest that this is not ‘fragmenting’ – it is ‘branching’. As long as the ‘branches’ are connected to the true vine, they are legitimate.

The Practice of Preference

Some of the differences between church and church are purely practical. If one group prefers to worship in a certain way, why should they be made to conform? Is this not just the freedom we are given? After all, it doesn’t destroy ‘oneness in Christ’, it just displays diversity. If you are more comfortable standing to pray and sitting to sing, and I the other way around, why should either of us insist on making the others do it the other way? Sometimes these differences can be accommodated without problem within the same fellowship. And it is important that we accept we must not legislate where the Bible doesn't. But with some things – the form of church leadership, for example – they are ‘structural’ and it is impossible for a single fellowship to be both. A decision has to be made. And if it is your choice that ‘my’ shape of fellowship is not to your taste, and you are happier elsewhere, so be it. The one who eats meat must not look down on the one who only eats vegetables, or vice-versa. Sometimes, it is hard to know which one IS the ‘weaker brother’.

Tim Keller is on record as saying that tolerance is not a question of not drawing lines – we all do; it is impossible not to. Rather, it is a question of how we treat those the other side of the lines we draw. That’s very useful, isn’t it? And with ‘one another’ – in whatever ’groupings’ we find ourselves, we have Christ’s direct command to that end. We are to love as He has loved us.

The Importance of Inspiration

What is important for all believers, in whatever denomination they are, is that they are persuaded to what they hold as true from Scripture. It may be more comfortable for me if everyone agrees with me and does things my way. But if their hearts are not where their professions are, what a terrible price to pay for that superficial unity. It is nothing more than uniformity. We must not dream that we will solve all our problems by painting a veneer of ‘sameness’ over the top, of simply wallpapering over cracks. The insistence of one person, or one group’s convictions, over all is nothing less than tyrannical. Our faith depends upon inner conviction, persuasion to, not imposition of, the truth. I simply do not want you to ‘believe’ what I believe because I believe it – I want you to believe it because you believe it. Else I am your authority, not God, and you have submitted to me, not to Him. That just produces plastic faith – a mere substitute for the real thing.

The Impetus of Inertia!

So, I implore you, stay in your denomination. And let us, as brothers and sisters, who will one day share eternity together, explore how to look at God’s word together, bringing our distinct views under its sound and its rule. Let us both have the openness of mind and of heart to ask the Spirit to reveal to each of us what we do not yet know, as well as what we think we know, but have not got quite right. Let us hold our ‘doctrines’ in an open hand and not grasp them tightly in unremitting fingers. That way, if God needs to add or remove anything, He doesn’t have to prise open our clenched fists in order to do so. We must remain teachable as well as fully persuaded.

In Summary

In conclusion, then:

  1. Denominations are with us to stay. Nothing you or I can do is going to change that. So we have to learn to live with them, and make them do what glorifies Christ. They don’t have to be viewed as the church’s great failure. Let’s look to see what God is doing.
  2. Let’s treat each other with all the love of Christ and respect.
  3. Let’s be transparent and clear, not only about what we believe, but why. Exposing our hermeneutic helps others to see how we got to what we believe.
  4. Let’s not take difference over doctrine personally. We don’t have to be aggressive in the assertion of ours, or defensive when others assert theirs. It’s God’s truth, not ‘mine’. It will stand if it is true. Whether I ‘defend’ it or not.
  5. Let’s be prepared to change. Intractability is not a virtue, although steadfastness is. We need to know the difference.
  6. Let’s get back to God’s word with absolutely everything. The Berean spirit prevails.
  7. Let’s look for opportunities for unity. Fellowship. Rejoicing in our vast ‘common ground’ rather than retreating to the disputed edges.

The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up: “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation of peace forevermore,
till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly, may live eternally. 

Friday, 1 April 2016

"This is That" - A quick look at Acts 2 and the 'family' gift of prophecy

Prophecy – the gift of the new covenant

It is generally stated that what happened on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first disciples, was that as an immediate result of the outpouring, they all ‘spoke in(with) tongues’. Certainly, this phenomena was what struck the gathered crowd so forcibly. But I think we need to look again at the text. I think that this first evidenced gift was not only ‘tongues’, but, more importantly, it was prophecy. And I think that prophecy today is misunderstood within the churches - that it should regain its rightful place as THE 'family' gift of all believers.  Let’s see.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.”

The Promise

This, of course, is in fulfilment of the promise of Jesus. If we flick back one chapter, we will see that during the forty days He was with them after the resurrection, He ‘spoke to them about the kingdom of God’. And it was in one of these sessions, during a shared meal, that He commanded them to wait in Jerusalem for ‘the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about’ - which Jesus calls ‘the baptism with the Holy Spirit’. This special dispensing of the Spirit would give them power and was to be essential and fundamental in their being His witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’. (Acts 1 vs 3 – 8). So this provision of the Spirit of God:
  • Is a gift
  • Is the Father’s promise, spoken of by Jesus
  • Is a baptism’ ‘– and John’s baptism in water is a picture of it. They would be ‘immersed’ in Him
  • Would ‘come upon’ them
  • Would provide them with power to be witnesses to Jesus
And we understand this event to be the founding of Christ’s new covenant church, to be His representation on earth until He comes.

The Outpouring

On the great day of the Feast of Pentecost, seven weeks after the Passover, this astounding event takes place. Passover was two things to the Jew:
  • The celebration of the new harvest – the bringing of the firstfruits of the field to the Temple, in thanksgiving
  • The occasion when they celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, 49 days (50 including the actual day of Passover). After the exodus from Egypt.
We must see the significance of this. 50 days after the death of Christ on the cross (our ‘exodus’), The Spirit of God is poured out upon ‘all flesh’. As the Law was the spine of the old covenant, so the Spirit is the ‘spine’ of the new. The whole of that former covenant was administered through the Law of Moses. So the structure and shape of the Christ-instituted new covenant, in His blood, is to be God’s own living, vital and vibrant Spirit, not laws engraved on stone. There, God gave those laws by writing them with His own finger. Here, He pours out His heart. The symbol of the former is stone. The symbol of the new is fire. Then, it was ‘dead letter’. Now it is white-hot holiness, the symbol of the very presence of God in His new Temple, the church, and its composite believers. The shadow is replaced by the substance. God brings about what the Law, great as it was, could only point to. And the lesser Law of Moses must give way to the greater glory of the Spirit of God Himself.

Tongues of Fire

  • What they heard – was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind – the ‘ruach’ (breath) of God, which filled the whole house.
  • What they saw – was the appearance of a great fire, with licking flames, descending, then dividing so that individual ‘tongues’ of fire separated and came to rest on each one.
  • What they experienced – was this great in-filling, which prompted them to pour out their hearts in inspired praise and worship to God, and in languages they had not learned, the Spirit Himself providing the words and sentences in these unknown (to them) tongues. What are they saying? We are told a little later – they are ‘declaring the wonders of God’ (vs 11).
And this was the fulfilment of what Jesus had told them. This was what they had had to wait for. This was the beginning of the vast expansion which flows the gospel out to the waiting world, and becomes the source of salvation to all who hear. This is the fountainhead. Some of the descriptions used:

The Spirit ‘comes upon’ them (Acts 1 vs 8). He descends. He was not there (at least in this abundant, new way) before, and then, he is there. Where does He come from? From the place where the Father and the Son are. He is the gift of the Father, sent by both the Father and the Son. He is the Advocate Jesus has promised to be with them in His place – and this is now possible for a world of believers, throughout the ages. The Lamb of God has entered into the true Holy of Holies, bearing His own blood. Our great High Priest has gone where He now remains, and He has sat down – the role of atonement is finished.

"God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear." (vs 32, 33)

And so the promised Spirit is now ‘delivered’ –the postman has done his job!

And note this – He comes on them individually. He appears as a ‘fireplace’ with a burning conflagration. But the flames themselves draw apart and each believing disciple receives his own personal tongue of flame, resting upon him. Thus God indicates that this new people of His are dealt with as individuals joined in the one Spirit, but nevertheless treated and dealt with distinctly.

The Spirit comes around them. He fills the house. There is accompanying noise and sound, to convince the senses of all that He is coming – and has come. Just as on Sinai, the mighty presence of God was announced in such a way that no observer could be in any doubt – and they trembled with fear. So it is now. But oh, what a difference! What greater glory is this! Not mere angels, but the very being of God descend this ladder, and will never depart until the Sender returns. What overflowing joy He brings.

And thus, they are baptised in Him. John had baptised in water. It was the ‘medium in which his disciples had been immersed – completely submerged. Mirroring the Jewish practice of mikvah – the ceremonial bath which was a requirement for cleansing before Temple worship – every last hair of the head had to go beneath. But this deep cleansing effected now by this ‘washing in God’ did everything that immersion in water could only promise. This is reality. That was just shadow.

The Spirit comes into them. They are not only immersed, they are invaded. This baptism is internal as well as external – they are filled with Him. Every crevice of their being is in contact with Him. Nothing remains unsaturated. They are Spirit-soaked. If ever you have gotten really wet in a torrential downpour of rain, you’ll know what that is. This is internal God-saturation.

But then, not only filled, but overflowed. Flooded. God’s gift is given, pressed down, shaken together and overflowing. My picture is of an open-top jar or cup standing under a running tap, until the flowing stream of water fills – more, more, more – but then there is no more space to fill and the water streams down the outside of the cup. Now, no part of either the inside or the outside of the vessel is not in contact with water. It runs into, over and around all of the cup’s surfaces.

The Spirit remains with them – He comes to rest on them (Acts 2 vs 4). Jesus has promised this Spirit to be with them forever. He will not depart, even though Jesus has had to – and He has told them that if He had not gone, the Spirit would not come. But now He is here, He is here, in each believer’s heart, for eternity – AND YOURS!

Oh, my brothers and sisters, how little we think on this. This is what happened with YOU when you believed in Christ. This is what god did in –to – your life. Is it any wonder that in that precious moment, you were changed forever? You may not even have been aware of it. Perhaps you cannot place a date and time on it. But God’s word tells you that as sure as you are His, you are His because this happened to you.

Spirit Speech

"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? … "

—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2 vs 5 – 12)

But now, let us pause, for a while, at that phrase ‘declaring the wonders of God’. We must consider not only the phenomena – the ‘speaking with other languages – we must also look beyond and ask ‘what is actually being said here?’

First, we will see, first, that the significance of this is that whereas in those former days, God had only ever spoke, by His Spirit, through the Old Testament prophets, in the language of the Hebrews, now he speaks in all the languages of the world. Indeed, it is for this purpose that He has established Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple in their midst. So that on this day, there would be gathered together peoples from ‘every nation under heaven’. So that, at last, here, in this God-chosen location, at last, they could hear this message – of all the wonders of God in the sending of His Son into their very midst, and all that had happened, and that he had subsequently done. This is incidence, not coincidence, His design all along has been aimed at this day, in this place – to bring the ambassadors of the nations together, to prime them all by speaking to them in their own tongues, then to send them back, like fired arrows, to their own places bearing this gospel, this news of salvation. These, then, would be the forerunners of the Apostles of the first church, taking the news of this day back and spreading it throughout the word.

What an astounding strategist is this God of ours. All the world is His, and He uses it just as He will, for His glory. At every turn it serves His purpose, and will glorify the Son and bring honour to Him – whether it likes and owns Him or not. He is unstoppable. Believer, do not doubt it – this is your God!

Second, we will note that the miracle here is in the speaking, not the hearing. This is very clear, although some have wondered. Each foreigner hears in his own language what one (at least) of these Galileeans is saying – the hearer understands the speech as he would normally. The surprise is that these are untutored Galileeans (you can almost hear the sneer behind the word). And the ‘enabling’, we are told, is of the Spirit-empowered speaker. Here is the first and primary indication to these disciples that they would indeed be Jesus’ witnesses ‘to the end of the earth’. Different tongues would be no barrier – God would overcome that in an instant, even though they had never been to language school.

Third. And then, we will see that the content of this astounding outpouring of supernatural speech is that they are declaring the wonders of God. All that he has been doing in Jerusalem and Judaea in and through the Christ. The one who had been so rejected, scorned, tortured, murdered, but who is demonstrated, in true glory, to be the image of the invisible God. Their hearts are full. So must their mouths be too.

Now, it strikes me that this is the very essence of prophecy – to be declaring the wonders of God. And we will see that this is the way this same Spirit prompts Peter to expound what is happening on this day of true glory.

Joel’s Prophecy

Peter stands to explain. How does he know what has happened in this last hour? Well, of course, the Spirit will provide that. So what does God say about this?
Peter says this is a direct fulfilment of a very old prophecy – from Joel:

“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.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2 vs 17, 18)

Let us examine that.
  1. The Spirit will be poured out on all people
  2. Sons and daughters will prophesy – a Spirit-succession to subsequent generations
  3. Young men will see visions
  4. Old men will dream dreams
  5. Even the least and the lowest in society will be recipients and will also prophesy
  6. There will be signs
  7. There will be salvation for all who call on the name of the Lord (Christ)
So this prophecy of Joel is a promise that has heavily to do with prophecy. The great blessing of this outpouring will be that ALL will prophesy, and/or experience prophetic insight (dreams and visions). This is what these disciples are doing on the street in Jerusalem, at 9 in the morning – they are prophesying in fulfilment of god’s promise through Joel. And here is God’s wonderful promise as to who may be included in all this:

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call."

Not for Apostles alone, then. For ALL whom He will call. For generations to come. The prophetic promise of God for each believer – they will prophesy. This is the ‘norm’ for the Christian. Brother, sister, when you ‘declare the wonders of God’, that is what you are doing – you are prophesying. When you say things to other believers or to the unsaved, speaking b the Spirit who fills your heart – you are prophesying. You are ‘inspired by the Spirit’ and you are speaking forth words from Him into your world. Too often, we think of prophecy in old covenant terms. We see it as what it was, as recorded in the pages of our Old Testament. Here was this man or that, who had been called by God to bring his words to a nation who were far from Him, or even to a king who needed rebuke for his sins. Or there, a word of encouragement and promise to a destitute and desperate people. Or occasionally, some foresight as well as insight as to what God would do in the days to come. But all that ever was, all that we see there is ‘shadow’, not the reality itself.

Why should we imagine, then, that new covenant prophecy would be precisely the same? Should we not expect it to be more – much more, now that the Son is revealed? We should not ‘trim it back’ so that it looks like our expectation, with a ‘thus saith the Lord’ style announcement to waiting ears. That will be to make it less than the fullness God now gives, now that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh for all time. We should see the shadow in the substance, but not confine the substance to the shadow.

"What do these things mean?"

Here is the practical outworking of this.
First, freedom for the ‘speaker’, the ‘prophet’. When we speak to each other, we can joyfully and eagerly expect God, the Spirit, to be bringing His truth, His encouragement, His comfort through our shared words. That is ‘prophetic living’, if you like – and it is what this new life in Christ should lead us to expect. But we have no need to voice it as if God is speaking directly through our mouths. WE are doing the speaking. We can say to each other, ‘I think’, or ‘I sense the Lord wants to say to you…’ without feeling that our ‘prophecy’ loses authority because of that. Indeed, that is being honest.

Second, freedom for the ‘hearer’. This leaves the hearer with choices. They are not placed in the insidious position of thinking ‘is this God speaking to me direct? If I disobey, am I disobeying God?’ No, it is left to the hearer to ‘weigh what is said’ as Paul says to the Corinthians is the way that prophecy should be heard. We must take it back to God’s word, not be forced to decide if we ‘believe in’ and trust the authority of the speaker. We must allow that the ‘prophet’ just might have misjudged or got it wrong. And this will not then be fatal to us. We will not have to decide whether or not we ‘stone the false prophet’, as they did under Mosaic Law.

I wonder whether you might have experienced those times when something that has been said to you, in a particular time of need of some kind, or something that you said to another brother in that position has somehow ‘rang true’, or, as we say, ‘resonated’ with them. You may not have thought it them, or think it now. But I believe that’s prophecy. God using human mouths to bring His words to the hearts of His children. Jesus speaking. Mercy and grace. Strength in times of need.

You might have heard the story of the little one, who, in the course of growing up, went through a time of being afraid of the dark. So Mum said to her, as a good Christian Mum, that her Lord Jesus was looking after her, even though she could not see Him; that he was in the night with her and would not leave her. So the next night, the little one’s voice calls “Mummy, Mummy. I’m frightened.” Mum replies, “Now, you know what we said about Jesus looking after you, don’t you?” And the little girl calls back, “yes, Mummy, I believe that. But I need someone with skin on.”

That’s what you, and the Spirit’s voice in you is. Christ with skin on.