The Gospel and the Spirit's Power

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 12:1-3

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:1-3, rsv

When the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the world in the first century, it didn’t enter a spiritual vacuum. There were apparently many religious movements in Greco-Roman culture. The apostle Paul describes them as “gods many” and “lords many.” There were various groups who professed to reveal hidden truth, to initiate adherents into sacred mysteries, to put them in touch with supernatural powers.

In that respect, at least, the first century Mediterranean world was very much like ours. There has been a marked rise in recent times of interest in religious experience and supernatural phenomena. Multitudes today claim to be in touch with a reality beyond themselves and to offer a wisdom reserved for the initiated. They seem to be moved upon by powers more than human.

TESTING THE SPIRITS

The writers of the New Testament frankly acknowledge that there is spiritual power in such movements, but much of it they attribute to spirits other than the Holy Spirit. They recognize a power at work here that is not the power of the Most High. They stress the need for God’s people to be discerning. Listen to the apostle John: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Apparently, there are unholy spirits that promote false teaching as well as the Holy Spirit who leads people into the truth. Believers, accordingly, are to test the spirits, to discern what is of God and what is not.

The leaders of the New Testament church recognized that many new believers had come out of backgrounds in which they had been in contact with powerful spiritual forces. They had been familiar with ecstatic utterances of various kinds and with strong impulses to worship. They had been carried away, Paul writes, led astray, “to dumb idols.” The idols themselves had been helpless, without vision, hearing or breath. They were false deities that could not speak or act. But the power that drove worshipers toward these idols was very real. A “spirit” of some kind was undeniably behind these non-Christian forms of religion.

In a similar way, it would be foolish for us to dismiss the experiences of those in other religious groups today as imaginary or ludicrous. People in various kinds of psychic ecstasy may indeed be carried away by powers they cannot understand or control. The burning question then and now is this: How can we distinguish the Holy Spirit from these other spirits? How can we distinguish Christian religious experience from that which is otherwise inspired? How in our time, for example, can we distinguish phenomena of the New Age movement from those produced by the historic Christian faith?

The apostle Paul speaks directly to that question in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 2 and 3:

You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

THE NEGATIVE TEST

There are two tests proposed here, one negative and one positive. The first indicates what cannot proceed from the Spirit of God. The second identifies what always does. Let’s look first at the negative. Paul writes, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says `Jesus be cursed.’” The apostle is making it clear that ecstatic utterances are to be judged by their content. It’s not how loud or impressive or bizarre an utterance is. It’s rather by what it communicates that we may know its source. For Paul, Jesus of Nazareth is the touchstone. What people say about Him has crucial significance. The apostle makes the absolute claim that no one who is inspired or guided by the Holy Spirit of God will ever say of Jesus, “Let Him be accursed.”

There have been people, many of them, who said something just like that of Jesus. Remember the religious authorities at Jesus’ trial? After the high priest had heard Jesus’ confession, he “tore his robes, and said, `He has uttered blasphemy.’ Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” The answer came back, “He deserves death” (Matt. 26:65-66). In other words, these people condemned Jesus. They declared Him unworthy to live. When the crowd later screamed, “Crucify him, Let him be crucified,” they were consigning Him to the accursed death of the cross. They were saying, “Let Jesus be anathema.”

Sometimes when the first Christians preached the gospel, their hearers declared Jesus to be anathema. Remember the martyr Stephen’s last message? When he had proclaimed the risen Jesus, a violent reaction followed. “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. . . They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him” (Acts 7:54,57). They could not bear to hear of Jesus. They rejected His message and stoned His messenger to death.

Later, when Paul preached to his countrymen in Jerusalem, they had a similar reaction. They lifted up their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he ought not to live!” (Acts 22:22). To them Jesus must be condemned, and so must His witnesses. In their frenzy, these hearers were evidently moved upon by some kind of power. But Paul insists that that power cannot be of God. No one speaking by the Spirit of God can ever say “Jesus be cursed!”

Later, in the days of the Roman persecutions, Christians were required upon pain of death to renounce Christ. The Latin term was maledicere, “to speak evil of.” This was the sign that citizens were true to the worship of the emperor, that they should confess in that way, “Let Jesus be anathema!” But never would the Spirit of God so lead them.

“Jesus be cursed!” summarizes for the apostle Paul everything that might be said against Jesus: every objection to His claims, every resistance to His lordship, every hostility against His person. Why would the Spirit never lead people to speak and act so? Because Jesus and the Father are one. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. What people say of the Son they say also of the Father. Their attitude toward Jesus is their attitude toward God.

The Gospel according to John develops this theme consistently and powerfully. To see Jesus is to see the Father. To hear Him is to hear the Father. To receive Him is to receive the Father. To honor Him is to honor the Father. On the other hand, to reject Him is to reject the Father. To hate Him is to hate the Father. To refuse to welcome the Son is to turn one’s back upon the living God.

God loves to hear people speak well of His Son. He loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He has exalted Him to the throne of the universe. His Spirit, the Spirit of God, would never lead anyone to speak ill of Jesus, the Son.

Further, because Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed One, He is especially endued by God with the Holy Spirit. He is filled, guided, empowered by the Spirit. He casts out demons by the Spirit. He rejoices in the Spirit. God has given the Spirit without measure to Jesus. Whatever then is said against Jesus is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would surely never lead anyone to speak against the One on whom He uniquely rests and through whom He accomplishes His mighty works. We may take it then as an abiding principle: whatever the speech, whatever the power, whatever the experience, if it leads people to oppose Jesus, to speak or act against Him, to hate and reject Him, the spirit at work in it cannot be the Spirit of God. No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!”

THE POSITIVE TEST

That’s the negative test. Next comes the positive. Paul writes, “No one can say `Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The key here is our most fundamental Christian creed, the heart of the confession which all believers make: “Jesus is Lord!” When Christians declare that, they are saying a number of momentous things. For one they are identifying Jesus with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Lord is the great Old Testament word for God. The God of Israel claims to be the one and only God. He says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:22). He declares that to Him every knee will bow and before Him every tongue will confess. Centuries later, Paul, in his New Testament letter to the Philippians, takes precisely that language and applies it to Jesus. At the name of Jesus, he says, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess “Jesus is Lord!” All the worship, honor, reverence and obedience we owe to Almighty God, we owe in the same way to Jesus. That’s what we mean when we call Him “Lord.”

By that name, we hail Him also as Victor over the powers of evil. By His cross and resurrection, He has broken the thralldom of sin over His people. He has delivered them from the dominion of death. He has spoiled principalities and powers. He has led captivity captive. Out of the seeming defeat of Golgotha has come the glorious triumph of Easter morning. Christ is Lord over all the hostile powers. He is the conqueror. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:57).

But the confession “Jesus is Lord!” is also an intensely personal one. It expresses a believer’s true relationship to Jesus. The one who says “Jesus is Lord” is accepting His authority, acknowledging Him as Master, Sovereign. By confessing Jesus as Lord, Christians proclaim themselves to be His servants. They declare themselves to belong to Him, to be not their own but bought with the price of His poured-out life.

Paul contends that the Holy Spirit leads people thus to ascribe lordship to Christ. He does not drive them, or compel them, as other powers do, toward lifeless idols. He graciously draws them, prompts them, so that they freely and gladly make this confession. To say “Jesus is Lord!” is never a merely human discovery. Remember Simon Peter when he made his great confession in Caesarea Philippi? In answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ response to that was, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:15-17). Only God can open peoples’ eyes to see who Jesus is. Only God’s Spirit can prompt and incline them to assign dominion to Jesus, to say “Jesus is Lord.” It’s a heaven-born confession, a Spirit-inspired acknowledgement of who Jesus is.

“Jesus is Lord!” summarizes all that is true and worthy to be said of Him. It’s the confession of those who believe in Him, who take Him at His Word. It’s the witness of those who submit themselves to His rule. It’s the creed of people who hope in His appearing. Those who confess “Jesus is Lord!” acknowledge that in Him God has acted once and for all for our salvation. They say that He is the way and the truth and the life.

This witness becomes the criterion by which all religious teachings and experiences are to be measured. Does this point people to the person of Jesus? Does it lead them to rely upon His saving work and to rejoice in His resurrection? Does it encourage them to be His followers, His loyal servants, to their life’s end? If so, that impulse is surely from heaven. That spirit is the Holy Spirit of God.

Here is the deepest meaning of Pentecost, with all its signs and wonders. What happened at that glorious Christian festival was the work of the risen Jesus. The Spirit is the Spirit of the ascended Jesus. He comes to empower the faithful to be witnesses to Jesus, to proclaim the good news that He is Lord. You can know that the glorious reality of Pentecost has become true for you. You can be sure that you are being filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, when the center of your witness, the theme of your song, the aim of your life, can be expressed in these words: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”