A "Spirit-ual" Puzzle

I've been reading N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope. It's a fascinating read, about heaven, resurrection and the mission of the church. The premise is that we can't understand the mission or purpose of the church - that's you and me - without understanding heaven and resurrection. And of course, heaven and resurrection can't be addressed without considering the book of Revelation, one of the most fascinating of biblical books. Some years back, I read Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder, the best book I have read on Revelation.

So Bishop Wright got me thinking about Revelation again, and I decided to read it once more. It's not going smoothly. Even in the first chapter, I get hung up on things I have read many times, but that now make me stop and say, "What does that mean, anyway?"

One such thing is John's statement that on the Lord's Day, he was "in the Spirit" when he had this amazing vision. He uses this phrase several times in revelation. What does he mean? Considering what happened to him in that state, it seems somewhat different than what we might think today.

Was he in a trance? Was it that he somehow felt especially warm and cozy and close to Jesus? It's hard to be certain. But one thing I can say is that I don't believe I have experienced anything like it, and I don't know anyone else who has.

I've heard it said that John was an apostle, a pastor, a prophet, and a mystic. I believe that. Only a mystic could have such a vision. I'm not an apostle or pastor or, if visions are a requisite, a mystic. I have been called a prophet, but I don't put a lot of weight on that. John had a deep and rich relationship with Jesus, and a boldness about his faith. I'm not certain I can say the same about me.

These things raise some questions in my mind. The church in America and Western Europe today is rationally oriented. It's primarily about mental acceptance of certain beliefs. And the idea of "experiencing" Jesus or the Father is not often considered in most circles.

John lived in a time and culture where knowledge was experiential. They knew God by experiencing him, just as they knew other people by experiencing them.

Much of the American church tends to look down on those who talk about "experiencing God." You know, those people who get all excited, jump up and down, shout, dance, and - heavens! - speak in tongues. After all, it's God, not football. Not good to be excited.

Recently, meeting with a group of Christians I know, one woman was talking about the experiences of different folks as they first come to faith in Jesus. She mentioned those who have a more demonstrative experience, such as in a charismatic church, for example. She said these people might even dance and speak in tongues, doing things many of us consider somewhat extreme.

I was surprised to hear this. Dancing and tongues, on the edge? Extreme? Unusual, certainly, at least in some places. Especially in most evangelical churches. But that wouldn't sell well in the early church, I'm afraid. In fact a lot of our concept of church wouldn't find many buyers in the first century.

I wonder if we have "progressed" so far that the Spirit is a relic of the past? That intimacy with God is a foreign concept? That we haven't any idea what John was experiencing? That we don't know what scripture means when it speaks of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit?

I am certain that folks in much of the "less sophisticated" cultures in our world have no problem with it. They live in a world of intense experience and a full acceptance of the world of the Spirit.

I've been to some of those "demonstrative" charismatic churches. One thing I noticed was that a lot of folks there deeply, enthusiastically loved Jesus, and they weren't shy about showing it. And they claimed God talked to them and they knew him.

Sounds a lot like something John might say. Sounds a lot more interesting to me than another dry, intellectual, "proper" church that makes little difference in anything.

We are perhaps more educated, more sophisticated and beyond such "emotional displays."

But we are much the poorer for it.

When was the last time God spoke to you?

10 Comments

Larry,

I enjoyed reading your article but I got the sense that it digressed from speculation as to what mental state the Apostle John was in when he received his vision to an attack on churches that don't emphasize the more charismatic gifts of speaking in toungues as being less intimate with God.

Would I be wrong in saying that the Apostle Paul's writings were more cerebral and he actually de-emphasized the more charismatic gifts?

One of the neatest surprises I've experienced in attending a liturgical church (LCMS) is how much it awakens my mind - which in turn causes me to seek more deeply the God I deeply want to know.

I guess, I have not so much been suspicious of charismatic expressions from believers as I have been cautious about using them to measure intimacy with God.
I don't know about your experience, but I have known some Christians who base their entire relationship on how close they feel to God. Sadly, when I've seen them after they've experienced tragedy(whether of their own making or otherwise)more often than not, they made unwise decisions in response to the tragedy because they felt God was no longer with them.

I'm not trying to make a blanket statement that all who are drawn to the more charismatic expressions of their faith are purely emotion-driven...it's just that I have to watch their lives for quite a while for consistency before I am willing to be impressed with any profession of intimacy with God.

You're last sentence where you ask the question "When was the last time God spoke to you?" seemed to imply that if it wasn't audible, then it is because we are not close to Him. I hope we can dialog about what you mean by that because it sounds like a limiting question.

Hi Norah,

Thanks for the comment. You raise some interesting questions, but I'm afraid I have not made my position clear.

First, John clearly says, more than once, that he was "in the spirit." What that means is unclear, but I think I'm beginning to have an idea. Second, I didn't intend an attack on non-charismatic churches. I attend one. My concern is not whether Paul was intellectual or charismatic. He was both. He had a superb mind, and yet his writing has references to the Holy Spirit over and over. (I have a 2-inch thick text that deals with nothing by the Holy Spirit in Paul's writing.)

The problem of intellect vs. emotion is not valid. God created our minds and intends that we use them. God also created our emotions and intends that we use them. And -- especially important -- God created us to be in interaction with the Holy Spirit, because it's through the Spirit that we know God. It's through the Spirit that we grow in the likeness of Jesus.

Those who scoff at education and other matters of the mind are foolish. But those who focus on emotion and "Rev. Feelgood" kinds of churches are equally foolish. The truth lies in the middle.

So the question stands: When is the last time God spoke to you? It's important, you know. He wants a conversational relationship, where we can truly know him as a result of intimate time together. As important as the mind is, it can't deeply know God alone.

Hi Larry,

I really appreciate your response. I am glad you took my post in the tone it was meant. Sometimes, I'm not sure how I come off when it comes to questioning things, and I definitely meant it in the spirit of love.

I agree that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I guess the angle I'm coming at in answering your last question is "I hear God speaking to me almost every day in the form of allowing me to see causal links (His hand in my life, so to speak) of events that remind me of His care for me. One example of this type of communication is when He opened the door, once again, to allow me to study Public Affairs. After I quit the program two years ago because of health reasons and tremendous stress in my job, I thought the door would be closed forever. When my job situation changed and I began to desire to get back into the program, I asked God if he would show me favor and grace by allowing what I thought was impossible (it's hard enough to get into this program, let alone be let back in). In using this example, I want to be very careful in not generalizing every event as being caused by God. I used the term allowed because I believe in His omnipotence, but one of the prayers I have been praying lately is that God would open my eyes to the ways that He is interacting in my life.

The other way I believe God speaks to me is when the Holy Spirit reminds me of God's attributes and faithfulness, but I believe this is in conjunction with spending time in scripture as I need to confirm with scripture that what I'm hearing is true.

I can't explain it rationally, but in the times when I do hear him speaking to me, there is an emotional sensation - but it comes after I hear Him speaking to my heart, mind, and soul. It is like a HUGE Amen, Allelujah and I feel like my heart wants to leap out of my chest.

I guess it only makes sense to me that I need the truth to be spoken to me before I feel anything. In some of the more extreme charismatic settings I've witnessed, it seems like the emotions are the prelude as opposed to the postscript of our interaction with God. That kind of scares me...but it could mean nothing more than I'm just not wired that way.

I don't think anyone should ever limit God in how He chooses to speak to us. He is our creator and knows the best way to reach our heart, mind, and spirit. It used to be that I envied those who seemed to be able to 'let themselves go so completely that whatever they were experiencing manifested itself in physical form through dancing or speaking in tongues. Now I understand that while this is one form of 'being in the spirit' I have also come to understand that I am much more internal (extreme extrovert) and can delight in God's presence through prayer and listening.

Avi...

I love the book of Revelation. I tend to view things in life from a literal, black and white, no shades of grey, perspective. Revelation really makes my mind churn with its combination of literal and symbolic events. Fortunately, Revelation is not too difficult to understand as far as it delineates between literal and symbology and all symbology is explained in other sections of the Bible, primarily the so-called "Old" Testament.

But...to get to your query as to John being "in the Spirit"...I think this is literal, meaning that John was "in the spirit", meaning that John had been translated to Heaven and was...well...spirit. This then makes me think about Messiah's comment about John not dying and a belief in the early Church that John would remain alive. An interesting idea.

Anyways, just my 2 cents.

Hi Brook,
Thanks for the comment. Revelation is indeed a fascinating book, and much more difficult to understand for those who don't read the "earlier" testament. Daniel is especially helpful, I hear.

My concern is that many read Revelation solely out of curiosity to know the future, with no understanding that John didn't write to titillate curiosity, but to tell people what events around them really meant and what was going on when seen from a bigger perspective. It was intended to be practical, with direct and immediate significance for the life of followers of Jesus today.

John's first readers lived in a world that seemed massively dysfunctional and even falling apart, judged according to their theology and expectations. Their world in many ways resembled ours. We live in a time of massive change, great uncertainty, and increasing danger. We would do well to read John's words to his churches as his words to us, as well.

Perhaps I will write more on this subject.

Going back to John...and being, perhaps, a bit off topic...what do you think of the idea that John is the "restrainer" of 2 Thessalonians 2?

I know many think that the "restrainer" is the Holy Spirit...but if it is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is removed from our realm, then can anyone be saved or redeemed during the Great Tribulation? If the Holy Spirit is no longer around, then can a believer be indwelt?

Brook,

Yes, a little off topic. I'm not sure who or what Paul is referring to here. Some others I have read have said the same thing, that this was a reference to something that was readily known and understood by those to whom the letter was addressed, but their clarity is certainly not shared by us.

That said, I don't see a way that John fits in here. Additionally, I think you're right in having some reservations about it being the Holy Spirit, which I have also heard taught. The Holy Spirit could not be completely removed from the earth as long as there was one believer remaining, or one person still being wooed toward faith in Jesus.

My thoughts on the "restrainer" being John was in reference to the early church belief that John would not die and would remain alive. I have always thought this a really really interesting idea.

We know that there was something quite unique about John...wasn't it Tertullian who writes that the Roman Emperor Domitian had John thrown into a big pot of boiling oil in the Colosseum and John emerged unscathed? And then something like all those who observed the event immediately converted to Christianity (guess Domitian left before the big event)? Then Domitian exiled John to Patmos.

It is assumed that John died from old age at some point...but...what if he is still with us?

It is a good ponder for me brain.

Brook,

The early belief regarding John's death was a misunderstanding of a comment made by Jesus. Jesus never said that John wouldn't die, but used the example as a "what if."

It's true that John was unique, but it's hard to see any way that he restrained anything in the Roman Empire or anywhere else.

For me, I have a long list of questions that I consider far more important and probably more fruitful than this one. Like, what (and when) is the resurrection, what happens to us after we die, and what's our purpose here on earth?

True enough that we all have different things that create a "ponder" in our brains. Thanks!!

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  • Brook Hayes said:
      True enough that we all have different things that create a "ponder" i...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Brook, The early belief regarding John's death was a misunderstanding...
  • Brook Hayes said:
      My thoughts on the "restrainer" being John was in reference to the ear...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Brook, Yes, a little off topic. I'm not sure who or what Paul is refe...
  • Brook Hayes said:
      Going back to John...and being, perhaps, a bit off topic...what do you...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hi Brook, Thanks for the comment. Revelation is indeed a fascinating b...
  • Brook Hayes said:
      Avi... I love the book of Revelation. I tend to view things in life ...
  • Norah L said:
      Hi Larry, I really appreciate your response. I am glad you took my p...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hi Norah, Thanks for the comment. You raise some interesting question...
  • Norah L. said:
      Larry, I enjoyed reading your article but I got the sense that it dig...

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