The Church, The Last Days & The Holy Spirit 1

When we hear the term “Last Days” it often conjures up travesty on the evening news, or perhaps some poorly made disaster film.

But if you look in context that’s not all there is, in fact the signifier of the “Last Days” is something different; In Acts chapter 2 we find Saint Peter speaking:

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet 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. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

-Acts 2:14-21

Saint Peter quotes the prophet Joel on the day of Pentecost 400 years after Joel spoke those words. Peter said The Holy Spirit being poured out is the signifier of the Last Days.  Joel said Something is going to happen, God is going to do something in the last days… God is saying “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” all who will receive I will pour out my spirit on sons & daughters, old & young… regardless of age, race, sex, color, background…

In the old testament the Holy Spirit “came upon” people at particular times for particular tasks: Gideon, David, Ezekiel, others. In the new testament, Joel foresaw and was prophecying, there will be a new ability to hear God, to prophecy, to have dreams and visions, this would not be limited but a great and new opportunity.

John the Baptist was the last old testament prophet proclaiming the coming of Jesus. He said “I baptize with water, but he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” Jesus said “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;” – John 14:6

Comforter, “paraclete” in Greek, means ”One called along side of.” Look at Saint Paul’s story: Knocked to the ground, he encountered Jesus then was filled with the spirit after being prayed for.

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 9:17

People encounter Jesus and then encounter the Holy Spirit, I love the fact that Ananias said “so that you may see again  be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

So, in short there are 3 ideas for us to grab this week:

I) The Holy Spirit has been given

  • Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. -Acts 1:4-5
  • The Samaritans in Acts 8:17 – Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.
  • Cornelius & Co. in Acts 10:44- Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message.

II) The Holy Spirit teaches

  • But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. –John 14:26
  • But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true–it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ. – 1st John 2:27

III) The Holy Spirit enables and empowers

  • Peter has a vision up on the roof –Acts ch 10:19-20 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” The Spirit informed and empowered Saint Peter.
  • The Spirit enables us, we do not direct the Spirit: ‘Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Peter 1:21

The Last Days have begun, God has poured out His Holy Spirit on daughters and sons, and We want to be “carried along” by HIS Spirit as we go.

Bob Dylan said “You’re Gonna Serve Somebody”

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will…”

So prayed Saint Ignatius. To live completely devoted to God, to be a God-pleaser. To put yourself totally in His hands and be pleasing unto God, whether pleasing unto men or not.

“…not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bond-servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” – Ephesians 6:6

A God-Pleaser is a bond-servant- doing the will of God from the heart. Doulos is the Greek for bond-servant. As Paul wrote:

(He) made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:7)

Paul, Timothy, Peter, Jude, & James all referred to themselves as doulos; the bond-servant of God. This refers to Old Testament times when people would work as servants for a time to pay off a debt, and they were then set free. A bond-servant  however was one who’d made a conscious choice, though free, to stay and not leave. His lord had become family and a friend, his house had become home, no longer a servant, he became a part of the family…

“But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my lord, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ “then his lord shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his lord shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.”  –Exodus 21:1-6

As we seek to live lives devoted to Father-God we do as St. Ignatius did and cast ourselves completely to the care of the Lord as a bond-servant, and rightly so, for as Peter wrote: “Cast all your cares on Him for He cares for you” -1 Peter 5:7

Psalms 27 says:

Though an army should encamp against me,* yet my heart shall not be afraid; And though war should rise up against me,* yet will I put my trust in him. One thing have I asked of the LORD; one thing I seek;* that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of the LORD* and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter…

As we commit our way to The Lord we realize that He has also committed Himself to our care and we find God’s provision in spite of circumstance or trouble. The sermon on the mount tells us we’re blessed even though these terrible things happen to us. I take this literally. Others may curse you, say unfair or untrue things about you, but at the end of the day you belong to Father-God and He says you are, and will be blessed.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you… He cares for you.

An old Bob Dylan song says “your gonna serve somebody…” Commit everything, to your last breath to The Lord and become His bond-servant. Belong and become family.

Conviction, Love, and Activism

The Gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the culture of the Roman Empire much because of the identifying characteristics that the culture saw in the early church.

The early church was misunderstood by Roman Culture: Now on the one hand believers were suspect to the culture that day. They had practices like a secret supper where they supposedly ate the  flesh and drank the blood of some man named “Jesus”; so the Romans asked if they were cannibals? They called each other “brother & sister”; did that insinuate  incest? They didn’t worship the Roman  gods; so were Christians atheist? Though there was confusion and distrust, and even false accusations about the Christians, and persecution from the establishment, there were also observations and a growing admiration for the early church as well.

In AD 112 a letter written from the Governor of Asia Minor to the Emperor Trajan states:

“many of all ages…every level of society…male & female… (free or slave) in towns & villages…& throughout the country…” Were becoming “Christians” and he feared; “the shrines of the Roman gods were becoming deserted”

As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Because of the dignity and equality expressed in the early church, Christianity appealed to women, to the poor and to slaves, but also to some who had means. The message that Christ came and died for all of them spoke with significance. The Christians also treated all with dignity and love. So we see these characteristics within the Ancient Church:

High Convictions, High Love, and Practical Expression-

1. High Convictions: They actually believed in something. They believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. They believed that THE EVENT had happened, that the God of the Universe had invaded space and time, that God came down from heaven and became man. He had come powerfully to redeem men from sin, evil, and darkness-

“Let me illustrate this further. Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger–someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.”- Mark 3:27

As St Ignatius (2nd century) summed up “The son of God became a man so that men could become the sons of God.” He had come to make all things right, He’d begun this process and would one day soon complete it. As 2nd Corinthians 5:19 says “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them…”

They actually believed in something, and they believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. The early church was known for their high convictions that guided their life and actions, even to the point of going to the arena, being burned alive, or thrown to the beasts.

 

2. High Love: God’s grace and love directed the believer outward to the needs of his fellow men, or in Jesus’ words-

“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.” –Matthew 5:13 And also “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” –John 13:35

Tertullian wrote, in the early 2nd century “The pagan’s remark ‘See how the Christians love one another’…” Oh that it were true now,  it can be, but we must reorient our hearts.

The high convictions and high love we see in the ancient church produced a practical expression of love within the community of the day.

3. Practical Expression: They took the words of Jesus, and of the disciples, seriously and lived them out in practical expression-

“I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”- Matthew 25:36,

They took seriously James’ exhortation of caring for the widows and orphans in James 1:27. So, in the early church we see an activism which took care of widows and orphans, which visited the sick and the prisoners, that loved the poor and the slaves, that took children in who had been left on the street to die, that buried the discarded dead because they were the image of God, and they were known for their open-handed generosity.

In our time the culture will have a problem with the church’s high convictions which should go against the grain of the culture whenever the culture is against the grain of Jesus’ teachings, and what God has revealed in the Bible, for God has not been silent.

But the church’s love and activism and expression, not divorced from its convictions, should also be such that bear witness to a world in need of hope.

(kudos to Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, and Robert Webber’s Ancient Future Faith)

The Age of Deception

There are different times in history, in reality-all the time, that the church is challenged to live true, and not be deceived by lies and deception. Just in the past century one of the best and saddest examples of this is Nazi Germany. The question “How could people have ever believed Hitler?” is glaring, yet then we must also ask what lies permeate our own society, and how can we be the church in an age of deception?

People believe a lie because they want to: 

Malcom Muggeridge, English journalist, author, WWII soldier and spy, and advocate for Mother Teresa said:

“People do not believe lies because they have to but because they want to.’ Looking back to Nazi Germany we may ask “How could they have bought the lie” but the lie was gradual, consistent, insistent… In Hitler’s own words “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it…It is not truth that matters, but victory…How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.”

How can I know truth?

In a world of no absolutes what is absolute? How can I know truth, and not be deceived? Proverbs instructs- “Get the truth and never sell it”

Look at the Bereans in Acts chapter 17: “…they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Jesus points us to scripture as  truth revealed to us by Father-God in John 17:17. “Make them holy by your truth: teach them your word, your word is truth.”

And also in Matthew chapter 22- “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”

Francis Schaeffer speaks about how the early church was able to live in a world of deception:

“(God gave) absolutes which enabled the early church to withstand the pressure of the Roman Empire. Without a strong commitment to God’s absolutes, the early church could never have remained faithful in the face of the constant Roman harassment and persecution.”

This remains as true today for the church as it was in the first century. The church fails to be the church when it fails to have absolute truth, a solid foundation of truth as has been revealed to us. Schaeffer said that the Bible speaks to us and gives us guidance, if we’ll let it. Paul said “I know what is right & what is wrong because of the law” (Romans 7:7)

The church can make a right stand in whatever society, if they stand on truth as it has been revealed. This requires not picking and choosing what suits us, and disregarding the rest, but wrestling with, and engaging scripture.  We must honestly read and study, like the Bereans in Acts, and then submit our opinions, preferences, and values to God’s truth first, as best we can.

To pick and chose, or disregard altogether, is exactly what the early church had to stand against with the early heresies. Huge sections of the gospels or Paul’s letters had been left out by those  who fell into dangerous teachings. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians:

“…stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

 

The End Of Christendom

When I was in high school and college I often said I felt I was living in a time similar to the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Malcom Muggeridge, British soldier and spy, later journalist and author, came to faith well into adulthood. Afterwards he authored The End Of Christendom, a lecture along with Q&A, in which he said:

Christendom began with the emperor Constantine. Christianity began with the incarnation…

This clarification is necessary in 21st century America. It is also the angst I was trying to verbalize several years ago as a student. America has been changing. I would argue that though the United States does not have a “state religion” in that there is no preferred denomination, the state religion of America up until the past 50 years was a “christendom”  almost synonymous with “cultural christianity.” Christendom,  is not in all actuality Christianity, it is similar in many ways but not in all. The wars in the middle ages accentuate this point in that God does not pick sides between warring Christian Kingdoms, Jesus said “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Christendom however has slowly been rejected by our culture over the past decades as is evidenced in our social mores; from rejecting prayer in school, or display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses to the current scrutiny of evangelicals, and the many other social changes we are witnessing. Many once nominal Christians no longer claim to be so as there is no longer a social advantage in doing so.

As we are now full swing into the new millennium we have to readjust our vision. Muggeridge clarifies for us:

Christendom, however, is something quite different from Christianity, being the administrative or power structure, based on the Christian religion and constructed by men. It bears the same relation to the everlasting truth of the Christian revelation as, say, laws do to justice, or morality to goodness, or carnality to love—if you like, as Augustine’s City of God to the earthly city where we temporarily live.

The founder of Christianity was, of course, Christ. The founder of Christendom I suppose could be named as the Emperor Constantine. I believe…that it is not Christ’s Christianity which is now floundering. You might even say that Christ himself abolished Christendom before it began by stating that his kingdom was not of this world—one of the most far reaching and important of all his statements. Christendom began with the Emperor Constantine. Christianity began with the Incarnation.

— Malcolm Muggeridge, from The End of Christendom, p. 13

The disciples went to make disciples, not necessarily to ensure that the state and the church were always symbiotic. Some would argue that any time the state sponsors the church then you have something compromised, other times the state has tried to suppress the church, as in the former USSR, and yet the church did abide with fiery devotion and integrity.

 

 

Not To Be Your Enemy

Saint Francis said “No man is to be your enemy.”

One of the biggest concerns and pitfalls of the new century is dehumanizing those who view things differently and who’s opinions differ from our own. In the last 20 years this seems to have particularly been accentuated.  Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu notes:

“When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”
― Desmond Tutu, Anglican clergy & leader

Tutu was working and operating in Apartheid South Africa, and took that activism to change a social and political climate. The difficulty of dehumanizing others stalls progress and continues to build walls between us.  At it’s best the church is to be the conscience of a society.

John Henry Newman, 19th century Anglican and Catholic scholar, noted the need for the church, and her clergy to give voice, addressing the political arena whenever necessary:

“Above all, clergymen are bound to form and pronounce an opinion. It is sometimes said, in familiar language, that a clergyman should have nothing to do with politics. This is true, if it be meant that he should not aim at secular objects, should not side with a political party as such, should not be ambitious of popular applause, or the favour of great men, should not take pleasure and lose time in business of this world, should not be covetous. But if it means that he should not express an opinion and exert an influence one way rather than another, it is plainly unscriptural.”
― John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons 

While remaining true to scripture and conscience, we should always seek to better and enrich society whenever possible. Francis said “While you are walking somewhere to preach, be sure that your walking is your preaching.” We must always strive to treat others with differing opinions, not as enemies, not dehumanizing them, not over-politically, but retaining the truth that each person is the image of God, and a child deeply loved.

Amending My Political Dogma

I once received criticism for leading prayers of the people, specifically praying for refugees and exhorting parishioners to “Treat the refugees among you kindly…” A good and well-meaning person later said “We really shouldn’t pray political things during prayers.” I disagreed with him gently, told him that I was not praying politics at all but rather I was praying scripture, particularly Leviticus 19:34

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

I also said that I felt responsible to teach people to pray according to biblical example, that instead of amending scripture to our politics or opinions, we must amend our life and prayers as we are informed by scriptural example and deed, whenever possible.

Historically, at it’s worst the church has been complicit with the mistakes and abuses of the state. At it’s best the church often functions as the conscience of the state. When the church functions as it should then slavery ends, apartheid ends, people are treated with dignity and respect as an image-bearer of their Heavenly Father.

We face real issues, there are real problems to solve, but we must consider what kind of world we wish to live in and treat others accordingly…the whole “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” thing.

Wilberforce, MLK, Desmond Tutu & many others, with or without famous names, have proven time and again the powerful need for the church to promote the good conscience of a nation. Often that is to uphold the law and to be good citizens, and sometimes that is to oppose laws that are out of date or are just plain wrong. We should continue to be the vioce of good conscience, It’s important and it will determine what kind of world we live in.

Harrowing Hell: Part 3- Gustaf Aulen and Christus Victor

Gustav Aulen, in chapter 3 of his book, Christus Victor, notes that though the early fathers had some divergent views, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, and Augustine all agree on this classical understanding of the atonement: that Christ, having died and descended into hell, overthrew the powers of darkness and broke the power of death, being raised again victorious. (Aulén, 37-39). Gustav Aulen notes that Augustine taught how:

…the race of men is delivered into the power of the devil on account of its sin; guilt rests on the whole race. Yet God does not cease to love mankind, and the incarnation is proof of the greatness of His love…the coming of His Son… is proof of the greatness of His love…the coming of His Son into fellowship with us, to take upon himself our sufferings and the evil which rests upon us. Thereby we are saved, justified by His blood, reconciled to God through the death of His Son, delivered from the wrath…” (45).

Elsewhere Aulen references Augustine, who explains,

The devil found Christ innocent, but none the less smote Him; he shed innocent blood, and took what he had no right to take. Therefore it is fitting he be dethroned and forced to give up those who were under his power (51).

After 1600 years, this understanding of the work of Christ, and the harrowing of hell, began to fall out of favor during the Enlightenment; however, in the 20th century, theologians like Bishop Gustaf Aulen began to rediscover this ancient understanding of the triumphant and victorious work of Christ in the harrowing of hell. Aulen writes: “Evil ultimately overreaches itself when it comes into conflict with the power of good, with God Himself. It loses the battle at the moment it seems to be victorious” (55). Basically, if a payment for sin was required- God also paid it in full through Christ. He overcomes not by Almighty fiat, but by putting His own skin into the game.

My understanding of the work of Christ has grown and developed greatly since encountering the concept of the harrowing of hell and Christ’s victory over death and the grave. Jesus was not an unknowing victim but a purposeful savior. He did not just rest or sleep while in the grave, it seems that, in combination with his crucifixion on the cross that this harrowing of hell in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday accentuates Christ’s complete and total victory as well as His ultimate sovereignty in all things.

Harrowing Hell part 2:

John Chrysostom, in his Easter homily of 400 a.d. quotes Isaiah  “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below” (Chrysostom) and Melito of Sardis, in the 2nd century celebrated Christ’s resurrection with these words:

Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ (On the Passover, part 102).

One clarification we must make in our understanding of the language is that hell may not have meant the lake of fire that many of us think of today. The Greek word Hades, and the Hebrew word Sheol referred to the place of the dead. Later wordings of the creed reflect this by saying “Christ descended to the dead” (A Christian Presence in Every Community). However, that is not to say that Christ descended into some limbo of nothingness.  The catechism of the Catholic Church states that

“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him” (Catechism, 180).

McGrath, writing on “the harrowing of hell” states “According to this, after dying on the cross, Christ descended to hell, and broke down its gates in order that the imprisoned souls might go free” (McGrath, 335). So, the idea of the Harrowing of Hell is more complex than one may initially think it is.

On Harrowing Hell

The Harrowing of Hell

The Apostles Creed states in the 4th line that Christ:

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:” 

He descended into hell.

Growing up in a non-liturgical setting, I was not aware of the Apostles Creed, I did not read or recite it until later into adulthood. Being Baptist, when it came to remembering Easter, I knew that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and raised on Easter Sunday, and I did not think much about the time in between.  There was no teaching on it. Encountering the Apostles Creed later opened up that timeline to me and gave me an idea of what happened between Friday and Sunday while Jesus was in the tomb. My Baptist understanding was that Christ slept in death but, as I encountered the Apostles Creed, I questioned if that was all that happened in between.

I later discovered that this “in between time” had a name: “The Harrowing of Hell”.  In The Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, article 3 states: “AS Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell”(A Christian Presence in Every Community). There is no elaboration beyond this statement. I will explore more fully what this may mean.

There are several scriptures the church has pointed to for a clearer understanding of just what Christ did between crucifixion and resurrection. Catholic theologian, Dr. Taylor Marshall, writing on the subject of Christ’s descent into hell notes the following:

  1. Saint Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4:9 that Christ our Lord descended into Hell after He offered His life on the cross. “Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?”
  2. Saint Peter said in Acts 2:24 that “God hath raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it.” Christ loosed the Old Testament saints from hell.
  3. Saint Peter also wrote in 1 Peter 3:19 that “Christ coming in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison, which had some time been incredulous.” On this verse, Saint Athanasius says that “Christ’s body was laid in the sepulchre when He went to preach to those spirits who were in bondage, as Peter said.
  4. The prophet Hosea foretold the descent of Christ into Hell in Hosea 13:14 by placing these words into the mouth of the Messiah: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”
  5. Zechariah foretells the redemption of those in the Limbo of the Fathers in Zech 9:11: “Thou also by the blood of Thy Testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit.” What could this mean except that the Messiah would free people from the underworld?
  6. Colossians 2:15: “Despoiling the principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently.” This refers to Christ’s victory over the condemned angels who are the demons of Hell.
  7. Psalm 23:7: “Lift up your gates, O ye princes,” which the medieval Gloss interprets: “that is–Ye princes of hell, take away your power, whereby hitherto you held men fast in hell” (Marshall) .

Next post we will look at theologians and church fathers more on the topic. For now there’s certainly some scripture to chew on.