January 05, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Fans of Peter Jackson’s films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy will recall the opening sequence in the final film, The Return of the King (all this years before Jackson’s—in my humble opinion—disastrous return to Tolkien in his Hobbit trilogy!). As the movie opens, we are taken back hundreds of years from the main action of the trilogy to the time when Smeagol finds the Ring of power, murdering his own cousin to secure the Ring for himself.
The film then moves quickly, covering scores and then hundreds of years in just a minute or two as we witness the Ring’s corruption of Smeagol’s soul and body until he transforms into the shadowy figure of Gollum who spends centuries living in caves to hide his Precious from any would-be thieves (watch the clip here). Through deft editing and swift narration, a huge amount of important historical/background material is conveyed in mere minutes before the film flashes forward to where the prior movie had left off as Sam, Frodo, and Gollum progress toward Mordor in order to destroy the one Ring.
The opening of Mark’s Gospel is like that. Mark wastes no time in getting us into the action as John the Baptist appears, predicts the coming of a powerful Messiah, and then that very person shows up to be baptized. The action is fast and furious and fraught with background. In the first 3 verses of Mark 1 we also are told in no uncertain terms that what will follow will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecies like the one Mark goes on to quote from Isaiah. Savvy biblical readers will sense that for all its apparent modesty, this section in Mark is summing up for us nothing less than the whole history of God’s plan even as it launches us into the heart of that plan as the incarnate Son of God arrives on the scene, earning immediately (Mark’s favorite Greek adverb is euthus after all!) the favor of the Father above.
Yet no sooner does God express his love for Jesus and suddenly the Spirit pitches Jesus headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. (I realize that the Revised Common Lectionary fails to include verses 12-13—it will pick them up in a Year B Lenten lection on Mark 1:9-15—but you cannot really get the full import of Jesus’ baptism without those two key verses and so I will de facto include them here and encourage my fellow preachers to consider doing the same in their sermons.) That hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! God no sooner declares ardent love for Jesus and he slaps Jesus into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil.
Very simply: because such an engagement with evil is precisely what Jesus’ baptism was all about. God did not send his beloved Son into our world just to be nice. No, God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself and for that very reason task #1 was to engage the evil that holds our world captive. That’s why there are those hints of violent activity in these few verses. In verse 12, although many translations such as the NIV renders the Greek to say merely that the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the desert, the Greek verb there actually carries with it the notion of being “thrown out” (ekballein). It seems as though the Spirit descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and brutally hurls him out into the realm of the devil himself! (Think of a bouncer hurling a troublemaker through the swinging doors of a bar and out into the street if you want to capture the essence of this image.)
It is indeed strikingly dramatic. This is no gentle baptism such as we see in church on a Sunday morning. Clearly something cosmic is afoot. However, having said that, it needs to be admitted that Mark’s text then seems to sputter a bit. Unlike Matthew and Luke who give us a lot of details on what went on between Jesus and Satan, Mark sums the whole thing up in just one verse, telling us Jesus was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. We’re not even told how Jesus fared in his temptations! Did he resist or give in? Mark doesn’t say.
Or at least he doesn’t say in so many words. But if you pay attention there are a couple of hints how things turned out. One hint is obvious: the angels were with Jesus. That probably indicates things turned out well. But the other hint is Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in. But think about it: when was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the animals of the Garden of Eden, calling them to his side, naming them.
By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus has begun life again for us all. Jesus is the Second Adam, doing it all over again but this time doing it right in order to set this cosmos back on the course God set for it in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists but instead of being consumed by it, he changes it into an oasis of shalom!
Mark’s action is swift and fast-paced and chockfull of detail for those with eyes to see. Because Mark wants us to know: In Christ a whole new world had dawned.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Herbert O’Driscoll once made a musical analogy to how certain biblical words function in Scripture. He pointed out that in the Bible, there are certain words that do not sound a single note like the plinking of a single key on a piano. Instead, certain biblical words and concepts are so loaded with theological freight that invoking that word is less like playing a single note on a piano’s keyboard and is more like sounding a whole chord. When I was growing up my parents had an old pump organ that my father had refurbished. When a certain stop was pulled out, the organ’s keyboard would automatically play bass clef chords to correspond with and harmonize with notes you played in the treble clef. I used to like playing that organ because I loved to see those other keys go down automatically when I pressed the right keys higher on the keyboard–to my young mind it was almost like magic!
That kind of thing happens in the Bible, too. If you press the right notes in one place of the Bible, you find that corresponding chords resonate in other parts. So when Mark tells us in verse 10 that Jesus witnessed the sky being “torn open” (Greek: schizein), we are reading a word that sounds an entire chord’s worth of meaning. The idea of God’s rending the heavens has a lot of Old Testament meaning, of course. But it also has richer meaning within the Gospel of Mark itself if we realize that this same word will get used as a kind of bookend phrase on the life of Jesus. If you look ahead to Mark 15:38, you will see that at the death of Jesus something else gets torn open and this time it’s the temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple space. What’s more, that curtain gets torn from top to bottom, letting us know just Who it was doing the tearing: God himself.
So what does it mean that as Jesus emerged onto the scene the heavens get torn open and that as Jesus exits the scene the curtain in the temple gets torn open? According to Tom Long there was an occasion a few years ago when a biblical scholar was explaining Mark 1 to a group of teenagers. This scholar told the teens that when Jesus was baptized, the skies did not just open up, as some older translations said, but in the original Greek of Mark 1:10 we are told the skies ripped open, split in an almost violent way. This was very dramatic and forceful. “Get the point?” the scholar asked the group. “When Jesus was baptized the heavens that separate us from God were ripped open so that now we can get to God. Because of Jesus we have access to God–we can get close to him.”
But there was one young man sitting in the front row, arms crossed, making a fairly obvious display of his disinterest. But suddenly he perked up and said, “That ain’t what it means.” What?” the Bible scholar said, startled. “I said that ain’t what that means,” the teenager repeated. “It means that the heavens were ripped open so that now God can get at us anytime he wants. Now nobody’s safe!”
Whether or not you go along with the idea of being unsafe now, the teen was on to something in realizing what was going on. There is a sense that in Jesus’ baptism, God was tearing open the veil of the heavens because he was now coming to get at us via his only Son and via his Holy Spirit who is now animating and empowering that Son for the ministry before him.
The Year B Revised Common Lectionary will spend a lot of time in Mark’s gospel, and so as we begin this new Lectionary year it is well to focus on some of Mark’s key characteristics, starting in Mark 1 with the first occurrences of Mark’s #1 favorite Greek word: euthus. The force of this word is “immediately,” though sometimes Bible translations blandly bury the word under some boring-sounding phrase like “then” or, as in Mark 1:10, obscure the word from sight altogether by translating it “As . . .” as in “As Jesus came up out of the water . . .” But in the Greek Mark really is saying, “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn.” And then not two verses later we are told in verse 12 that with equally lightning quick speed the Holy Spirit “Immediately hurled Jesus out into the desert.” Things happen fast in Mark’s narrative style but something of the very verve and vitality of the gospel is in there, too! We don’t want to miss it!
In Jesus’ life a funny thing happened again and again: when he touched the sick, they got well; when he touched the unclean, they got clean. Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom of his day that said it is sickness that gets transferred from the sick to the healthy. Jesus went the other way letting his health flow to those who were sick. Jesus reached out to the sick because he knew that the contagion of God’s Spirit with which he had been anointed was stronger than the contagion of sin. As it was with the wild animals, so with everyone else thereafter: where Jesus went, shalom followed.
But people today have a hard time believing that. In the movie Pleasantville we see a reversal of the Christian story. In the film two teenagers from 1998 somehow get trapped inside a 1950s situation comedy show on TV. They suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville U.S.A. long about 1953. Like the old TV show itself, the entire town and all the people in it are in black-and-white. It’s the typical caricature of 1950s buttoned down, middle class suburbia where Mom wears a dress all the time (even when baking cookies), Dad goes off to some nondescript job every morning, returning home each evening around five with the characteristic, “Honey, I’m home!” And in those pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles days, the teens of the town are all very square and moral and, according to the film, boring.
So the kids from the future set about to inject some enlightenment into the town and they do so through (what else?) sex. But no sooner do they start to spread the sexual revolution around town through seducing basketball players and providing homebound housewives with lessons on what sexuality is really all about and suddenly the black-and-white town begins bursting into color. First it’s just one red rose but soon it is entire persons (the enlightened, sexually active persons, of course) and finally, as the roaring 1990s gets fully injected into the staid 1950s, the entire town is in Technicolor splendor.
Get it? It’s a reversal on the Garden of Eden story. Being moral is dull and lifeless and colorless. Eating the forbidden fruit is what gives life zing. The Garden of Eden bursts into color and full bloom after sin arrives, not before. The story of Jesus insists that we resist thinking this way. Because Jesus was the incarnation of Eden regained. The world into which Jesus was born was black-and-white and lifeless. But wherever Jesus went, whomever Jesus touched, suddenly new life and glorious color burst back onto the scene! Jesus came to restore shalom, to bring us back to God by bringing God down to us.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“The first day.”
That is how this Year B Lectionary text concludes. There was a morning and there was an evening and together they constituted “the first day.” Of course, even in the text of Genesis it’s difficult to know just what that means. Within the sequence of just these first 5 verses there is as yet no discernible earth to speak of nor is there yet a defined sun or moon or any stars. There’s just some kind of light and some kind of corresponding darkness.
It reminds me of one of the motifs from the outstanding (but oft-misunderstood and oft-maligned) film The Tree of Life from director Terrence Malick. In the film we see again and again—at key turning points in the film—some kind of orange-ish/yellow-ish wisp of light hanging in space and surrounded by darkness. Not a few people have concluded this is Malick’s depiction of God and, more specifically, of Christ as the light that shines in the darkness but without the darkness having overcome it (cf. John 1, a text that also brings us back to “In the beginning”).
Who knows just what picture we are to envision at the end of these first few verses of the Bible. But whatever it is we are to see or picture in our minds, it adds up to “the first day.”
The first day.
What is it about that phrase that sounds so fetching? Maybe it’s something we all secretly pine for whether we know it or not. Maybe we sense that the first day—whatever it was or is or could ever be—is the day without regrets, without bad memories, without anything that came before that could sully the moment. Instead “the first day” is loaded simply with promise for what may yet be.
When we get married, we have “a first day” of being husband and wife. The very words sound funny when we apply them to ourselves initially. The idea of now just being married and having such a new status in life is enough to make one almost giddy. You look at each other over dinner and say, with grins on your faces, “Hey, we’re married!” And on that first day of marriage, it all seems possible. Your life together is all future oriented with no baggage from the past, no marital spats to remember or try to blot from your mind, no past sins as husband and wife to feel regret over or shame about. On the first day, it’s all about what may yet be and not about what has already been. What you can build together is paramount, not what you may need to repair from the past or attempt to re-build in the future.
The first day.
It is a day of light, pure light. It is a day with no shadows, no things to haunt or cloud or occlude. There is nothing to eclipse the light on the first day. The first day is where we wish we could live every day. Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, we want to set up shop on the first day, capture its essence, bottle it, keep it, preserve it, revel in it always.
But we cannot. As in Genesis 1, so in our lives, the first day is ephemeral. It ends. The evening comes and soon a new day will arrive and then another and then another and before you know it, a history starts to be formed. You have days to look back on eventually and they are not always pleasant. Things crop up that do eclipse the light after all. Shadows form. The chaos God pushed back in Genesis to create his cosmos rears its head whenever it can, disorienting us.
And as the days accumulate and the memories (good and bad) accrue, we feel a little desperate sometimes. A little wistful, a little full of what C.S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, that longing or hankering for . . . something, for a better country, a better life. We hanker maybe for what things were like on the first day. So we wonder if we can ever get back, ever get to the point of living with hope and with good possibilities instead of with bad memories and with past disappointments.
Two things give me hope in that regard. The first is from Genesis 1 itself. Yes, the first day passed as it had to do so we could move on with the story but on that first day—when all was new and fresh and redolent of possibility—there is but one character in the larger story who is on the scene and that is God himself. As someone once noted, the first four words of the Bible are really all you ever need to know: “In the beginning God.”
In the beginning God. That may well say it all. God was there in our beginning and that means he’ll be there at our ending, too. And because that is true, we know that there won’t really be an ending to any of us.
And that’s the second thing that gives me hope but this part of the hope comes from another part of the Bible when we read the familiar words “On the first day of the week . . . the women went to the tomb.” What they found on that particular first day of the week changed everything to the point that we Christians still gather on the first day to remember a resurrection that changed everything and that provided a new beginning, a new start, a new first day that returns each and every one of us (and the whole lot of us) to a time of new possibilities, to a place where the sins and regrets of the past really are forgiven and blotted out, to a place where hope shines out with all the possibility God once had in mind when he began the whole story with the clarion cry, “Let there be light.”
And there was light. There was a morning. There was an evening. There was the first day. God was in that first day and he is in all the days that follow, even to the end of the age and beyond. That is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Listen: “In the beginning God.” You don’t need to read much farther than that in the Genesis text to discern how the cosmic end is contained in the cosmic origin. “In the beginning God.” So simple, yet so majestic. Because if that is true, then it’s very close to being all we need to know.
Science is only too happy to affirm that the statement “In the beginning God” is singularly an article of faith. As many of you no doubt know, the Hubble Space Telescope has peered ever deeper into the far reaches of the known universe. As you may also know, the farther “out” you look in a telescope, the farther “back” you look. Light travels very fast, somewhere around 186,000 miles per second or just shy of about 6 trillion miles in the course of one year. That’s very fast, but the universe is very big, and so even at the breakneck speed of light it takes a given beam of light a long time to get here. So if it were a clear night after church this evening and you were to look up at the stars, you’d be seeing old light–light that has been traveling years to get here. Even the light from our own sun takes about 8 minutes to traverse the 93 million miles between earth and the sun. The next closest star is about four light years away such that if right this very instant on January 11, 2015, at around 6:22 in the evening, if that neighboring star were to blow up, we would not know about it until sometime in the year 2019–that’s how long it would take the light of the explosion to travel from there to here.
But the point is that the farther the Hubble sees out, the older the light it is catching sight of. There are some who say that eventually we may invent a telescope so powerful as to see all the way back to nearly the Big Bang itself. Even were such a trick of virtual time travel possible, the line “In the beginning God” would be neither validated nor disproved. No matter how far back a telescope sees, it will never snap a picture of God blowing out the match with which he lit the Big Bang! Scientists who believe that the only knowledge that counts is what science can prove claim that their inability to see God out there proves God does not exist. More balanced scientists admit that there are many truths we know without scientific proof. But it doesn’t matter what they think because even we Christians know that to say “In the beginning God” is a matter of faith alone.
But what a key piece of our faith it is! Because contained in that little statement is the keynote of faith: namely, God has something to do with everything. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is known as a merismus whereby two opposite extremes are used to convey the larger whole. In this case God is said to have created the highest point you can imagine and the lowest, which means he created absolutely everything in between, too!
In the beginning God. In the beginning God created. In the beginning God created everything. What God made is vast and on a scale beyond our comprehension but God made it all. God redeemed it all. Thanks be to God for the gift of creation and redemption!
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 29 is a hymn of praise to the God of creation. It’s a rather “noisy” psalm that the poet fills with the sounds of praise, thunder, wind and even the sound that earthquakes make. It’s a psalm that the psalmist also fills with vivid images of angels around God’s throne, flashes of lightning, twisted trees and skipping countries. So it’s the kind of psalm whose reading its preachers and teachers might enhance through sounds and images.
It’s as if the psalmist is peering into God’s heavenly “throne room” as he writes this lovely psalm. After all, he calls “mighty ones,” perhaps, as James Limburg suggests, the heavenly beings that surround God’s throne, what we sometimes call angels, to lift their voices in praise.
So the poet doesn’t just, as she often does, call worshipers to praise the Lord. She also summons both heavenly and earthly creatures to join in a cosmic choir that praises the Lord who creates and cares for them. The call to offer that praise seems to play a central role especially in Psalm 29’s first verses. After all, the psalmist repeats that call three times in the first two verses alone.
Verse 10 lends evidence to the suggestion that God’s heavenly throne room is Psalm 29’s backdrop. After all, it refers to the Lord’s sitting enthroned over the flood. It also speaks of the Lord as “King forever.” This gives credence to an understanding of this psalm as not just a hymn of praise to God the creator, but also as a polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions.
After all, the “neighborhood” in which the psalmist’s Israel lived was no less spiritually confused than the world of the 21st century. The Canaanites, for example, thought of their Baal as the god of the storm. Psalm 29, by contrast, asserts that Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, is the God who not only rides on those storms but also rules over them. In fact, the psalmist mentions the Lord’s name 18 times, as if to emphasize by sheer repetition that it’s the Lord, not other gods, whose majestic power rules over creation.
So while Israel’s neighbors thought of floods as persistently threatening creation, the psalmist insists that God is the boss of even floods. God’s Israelite sons and daughters recognized God as the One who’d promised after the catastrophic flood never again to allow such an inundation to wreak such havoc.
It’s not easy to understand to what the psalmist refers when he calls the whole creation to give “glory” to God. After all, the word, kabod in Hebrew, connotes a kind of heaviness or abundance. So, for example, clouds can be kabod with rain and hail is kabod. However, when the Scriptures use the word kabod to describe God, they often, says Limburg, imply weightiness, splendor, majesty and magnificence. So by calling it to give “glory” to God, perhaps the psalmist is calling the whole cosmos to join together in praising God’s majesty.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the psalmist as sitting at the edge of a lake as she writes this psalm. Perhaps at first she’s surrounded by an eerie calm, maybe in that kind of green-grey light that sometimes precedes storms. However, slowly, almost imperceptibly the western horizon takes on a darker hue. Clouds begin to dash across the sky. The wind slowly morphs from a gentle breeze into a howling gale that raises whitecaps on the water. Flashes of lightning and bursts of thunder bunch more and more tightly together. Suddenly sheets of rain sweep the psalmist toward cover.
Thoughtful readers can hardly miss the sense of wonder that fills the psalmist as he contemplates all of this. However, his awe stems not from the mighty storm, but from the majestic Lord whose glory the storm displays. In that way, Psalm 29’s imagery evokes that of William Cowper’s moving hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way:” “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform: / He plants his footsteps on the sea/ and rides upon the storm.”
The psalmist’s sense of wonder at God’s majestic work in creation offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their responses to dazzling natural phenomena. To what do rumbles of thunder draw their attention? To the beauty and sometimes fear they may evoke? Or to the God who somehow “rides” on them? Do we hear in the winds that sometimes rattle our windows and shake our trees just disturbed air? Or do we somehow hear the voice of God calling us to worship the Lord?
Of course, it’s not easy for citizens of the 21st century to think about God’s voice as thundering or flashing lightning. Certainly even modern people recognize that God’s voice that called all things into being and shook Israel at Sinai is “powerful” and “majestic.” But does God’s voice really break cedars, make whole countries to skip like calves, shake deserts and twist trees? How do we think about what seems like Psalm 29’s “pre-scientific” understanding of God’s voice’s work in creation? This psalm can almost sound like childhood claims that thunder is the sound angels make when they’re bowling.
So might we think of this assertion of God’s mighty voice in creation as another part of Psalm 29’s polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions? After all, their gods couldn’t speak (or hear, as Baal’s prophets learned at Carmel). The Lord of heaven and earth alone is able to speak. And speak that God does, whether in Jesus Christ or, to the psalmist’s’ contemporaries, in rumbles of thunder. God speaks, whether in God’s Word, or, to the psalmist’s contemporaries, in gusts of wind. In a psalm that’s full of voices, none speak louder or more commandingly than the Lord’s.
All of God’s speaking invites all in God’s temple to respond by crying “Glory!” That temple may be God’s temple in Jerusalem. It may refer to God’s “temple” that is God’s creation. Then the “all” who cry “Glory!” would refer to every creature. Or God’s “temple” to which verse 8 refers may allude to the temple that is God’s throne room. Yet perhaps it’s not necessary to try to delineate just who precisely cries “Glory!” After all, it’s a gasp of praise that God’s majesty squeezes out of every creature whether in heaven or on earth. No matter who the “all” are, the psalmist calls them to join in exclaiming praise and wonder.
Yet the psalmist perhaps strikingly ends this noisy psalm with descriptions of God’s tender, loving care for God’s adopted sons and daughters. Throughout the psalm the poet talks about God’s displays of strength. Yet she ends by insisting that God also gives strength to God’s people. However, perhaps especially poignantly, the psalmist ends her hymn of praise to God the creator by asserting that God uses God’s strength to graciously grant God’s people “peace,” shalom in the Hebrew. After all the noise and action of Psalm 29, the poem ends with the word “peace.” Not, as one colleague notes, peace and quiet, but the “peace that passes all understanding.” The peace for which God created God’s people with God, their neighbors and creation.
Psalm 29 is the kind of psalm that almost begs worshipers to sing the stirring hymn, “How Great Thou Art:” “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, / I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, / Thy power throughout the universe displayed; / Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; / How great thou art! How great thou art!”
Author: Stan Mast
Although this reading from Acts 19 may initially seem an odd selection for the church’s celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, it is actually very fitting. For one thing, it is a sequel to the Gospel reading for today, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as told in Mark 1. Here in our reading, the baptism of John the Baptist is mentioned once again, and for the last time in the New Testament. More significantly, the celebration of Jesus’ baptism is a Christological festival, focusing on the Father’s declaration of Jesus’ divine Sonship and on the Spirit’s descent upon and empowering of Jesus. While Acts 19 seems to be little more than a troublesome footnote in the story of the early church, this story is a thoroughly Christological event as well, because it shows the importance of faith that is focused on Christ alone.
I call this story troublesome because of the questions it raises about the Holy Spirit and faith, the Holy Spirit and baptism, the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, and about baptismal formulas. I’d like to work through the text by first of all asking some fairly simply questions. Then I will highlight the difficult theological questions raised by the story. Finally I’ll give some suggestions about how this knotty little text might be preached fruitfully.
Paul is on his third missionary journey. Having worked his way through lower Asia Minor revisiting churches he founded on his previous journeys, he is at the beginning of what will be a “three year” (actually 2 years and 3 months) preaching ministry in Ephesus. He has been preceded by the ministry of Apollos, whose story is told in Acts 18:24-28. The feature of Apollos’ ministry that is relevant for our text is mentioned in Acts 18:25. He “taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.” Priscilla and Aquila heard him speak and invited him to their home, where they instructed him more completely about “the way of God,” undoubtedly including baptism.
However, it seems the effects of his inadequate teaching continued on in the lives of 12 men in the Ephesian church. When Paul arrived at Ephesus, he found those 12 men, whom Dr. Luke identifies as disciples, the ordinary description of Christians. We’re not told how Paul found them. Had Priscilla and Aquila pointed them out to Paul as church members who needed further catechesis? Or did Paul immediately notice their severely ascetic lifestyle (following in the footsteps of John the Baptist) marked by an obvious lack of the joyful and peaceful fruit of the Spirit? If it was the latter, Paul’s initial question makes good sense.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” That is a peculiar question in the mouth of Paul, who would say definitively in Romans 8:9, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” So, were these “disciples” really Christians? Or were they disciples of John the Baptist, but not of Jesus? Or is there some significance in the word “receive?” Is it possible to have the Holy Spirit, but not yet to have “received” that Spirit?
The reply of the 12 disciples is troubling. “No, we have even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” How could that be? Perhaps their initial instruction in the Christian faith had omitted any mention of the Spirit. That’s possible, if they had, indeed, been brought into the church by Apollos, whose teaching, though fervent, was noticeably inadequate. Or perhaps they knew about the person of the Spirit, but they didn’t know that he had been given to the church. A variant reading of verse 2 has the men saying, “We have not heard that the Holy Spirit is given.” John the Baptist had predicted that the One to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and it is possible that Apollos had not explained how that prediction had been fulfilled already. Still stuck in the ministry of John the Baptist, perhaps Apollos had not declared the Good News of Pentecost.
Paul adds to the confusion by asking what may seem a non-sequitur. “Then what baptism did you receive?” Was that merely an allusion to the fact that Jesus had commanded his disciples to baptize in the “name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” If you’ve never heard of the Spirit, what kind of baptism did you receive anyway? Or is Paul making some kind of deeper connection between the Holy Spirit and baptism? Did he think that the Holy Spirit is always given at/with/through Christian baptism, so that the absence of the Spirit suggests a less than Christian baptism? Surely there are many Christians who construe the connection of the Spirit and baptism in that fashion.
The 12 reply innocently, “John’s baptism.” This seems like clear evidence of the hand of Apollos in this matter, but Paul doesn’t criticize Apollos. Rather, he catechizes the 12 by explaining that John’s baptism was preparatory and provisional. It was designed to bring God’s people to repentance by stressing their sinfulness and thus creating a sense of need for the Gospel. John’s baptism pointed to the need for repentance and forgiveness, but that forgiveness would not be available until the Messiah came. That’s why John “told the people to believe in the One coming after him, that is, Jesus.” In those few words, Paul effects a major change in the lives of these 12 disciples; their attention shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus. Notice that Paul called them not to receive the Spirit, but to believe in Jesus. They will receive the Spirit in a moment, but first they must fully believe in Jesus.
Immediately, they shift their allegiance completely to Jesus, as signified by their baptism “into the name of the Lord Jesus.” This is not John’s baptism; it is Jesus’ baptism. No longer are they under the sway of John; they are under the Lordship of Jesus. Curiously, the Spirit isn’t even mentioned in this baptismal formula, even though Jesus had so instructed in Matthew 28:19. This omission has led some denominations to eschew a Trinitarian baptism in favor of a Jesus baptism.
Yet, the Holy Spirit is clearly associated with this baptism. Luke tells us that when “Paul placed his hand on them (probably in a separate liturgical act as elsewhere in Acts), the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” This whole scene began with Paul’s question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “No.” But now, having been more clearly taught and having more fully believed in Jesus and having been re-baptized (the only rebaptism in the New Testament), they have experienced the coming of the Spirit into their lives, as evidenced by speaking in tongues and prophesying. After this, says F.F. Bruce, Ephesus became the primary missionary center of Asia Minor, and these 12 Spirit filled disciples became the nucleus of that church. Whether Bruce is right about that last assertion, it is clear that Luke thought this event was significant enough to include in his account of the Acts of the Apostles/Holy Spirit, even though it raises some troubling issues.
I’ve outlined those issues above and highlighted them as we worked our way through the text. Now I’ll try to say something a bit more definitive about them, foolishly rushing in where centuries of denominational battles have not solved the controversies. So, first, what is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and believing? Is it possible to truly believe in Jesus without the working of the Spirit? Paul’s words in I Corinthians 12:3 seem very clear. “[N]o one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” One cannot be a “born again” believer apart from the work of the Spirit, said Jesus in John 3. So, how could these 12 be disciples without the Spirit? Either they weren’t really disciples of Christ or they were genuine Christians who had not yet consciously experienced the presence of the Spirit. I think it was the latter. The Spirit had done his secret work of giving new life and real faith, but they had not yet realized that the Spirit was present or experienced that presence in a way they could name. This is the case with many Christians today.
Second, what is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and baptism? Paul’s immediate move from the Spirit in verse 2 to baptism in verse 3 suggests some intimate connection between the third person of the Trinity and the sacrament of baptism. Given texts like Titus 3:5 (“the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”), it is no wonder that major segments of the church have interpreted our text as warrant for baptismal regeneration at least and the actual giving of the Spirit in baptism at most. On the other hand, such a close and automatic tie between the Spirit and the sacrament has always struck the rest of the church as out of sync with Jesus words about the Spirit “blowing where it wills.” This is a tangled business that has divided the church for centuries, so it is probably best avoided in a sermon on this text. Basing a whole baptismal theology on a text this full of controversy isn’t a good idea.
Third, what is the relationship between the “coming/reception” of the Spirit with speaking in tongues? This text clearly links the two, as do the stories of Pentecost in Acts 2, the conversion of the Samaritans in Acts 8, and the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. However, many other stories of the reception of the Spirit (beginning with the conversion of the crowed at Pentecost in Acts 3) do not make that automatic connection. It simply is not the case that whenever anyone receives the Spirit that person speaks in tongues.
So what do we make of this story and the others? Well, it is important to note that each of the examples given in the previous paragraph occur at a major turning point in the progress of the Gospel in the world. In Acts 1 Jesus said that the Gospel would be preached in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Acts 2, the Spirit is poured out on Jews in Jerusalem and they speak in tongues. In Acts 8, the Spirit comes upon Samaritans in Samaria and they speak in tongues. In Acts 10 the Spirit is poured out on Gentiles in Caesarea and they speak in tongues. And here in Acts 19, the Spirit is poured out on inadequately instructed members of the church in Asia and they speak in tongues. This text represents a new phase in the spread of the Gospel. If the first three examples of the Spirit and tongues were extensive, this one is intensive. The Gospel has extended to the ends of the earth (symbolically) and now the church must be more intensively instructed for the next phase of the mission. The Spirit makes his presence known by the gift of speaking in tongues at each critical juncture as a way showing the church that God is in this new move. But the coming of the Spirit is not always accompanied by speaking in tongues.
So how should we preach this text? I suggest that we can focus on stages in the journey of discipleship. These 12 were “disciples,” but they needed to grow in several significant ways. For one thing, they were attached to one teacher in a way that inhibited their growth. That happens to Christians all the time, particularly in the early phases of their Christian life. The one who brought them to Christ can become more important than Christ himself. These disciples needed to move beyond John, even as the Christians at Corinth needed to get over Paul, Apollos, or whoever else their favorite preacher was.
For another thing, these Christians needed more doctrinal instruction. They had been inadequately instructed, and Paul had teach them the “full council of God” by clarifying what John and his baptism were really about. Particularly in this postmodern age, where doctrinal instruction is viewed with suspicion as narrow minded and bigoted, many Christians are more interested in practical teaching than in truth claims. So, they remain what Paul in Ephesians 4 called “infants…, blown here and there by every wind of teaching….”
Thirdly, these Christians needed to be more Christ focused. They were disciples, but they needed to put their faith more centrally in Christ alone. As Joe Stowell puts it in his fine little book, Simply Jesus, we all have a tendency to add something to Christ. It’s Christ and works, Christ and politics, Christ and sports, Christ and my family, Christ and…. Paul directs these 12 to stop dividing their allegiance between John the Baptist and Jesus and “believe in the One coming after him, that is, Jesus.” When they did exactly that and made Jesus Lord, their lives were changed. So, we can legitimately challenge our congregations to get rid of the “and” in order to make Christ Lord of all.
Finally, we can confront our congregations with Paul’s opening question. Even people who have consciously made Jesus Lord of their lives can still try to live under his lordship in their own power. They began in the Spirit (as Paul puts in it Galatians 3:3), but they now try to attain their goal by human effort. All of us need to be confronted with the importance of receiving the Spirit in a conscious and continual way. “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?” And have you continued to receive that Spirit? Are you continually filled with the Spirit, as Paul put it in Ephesians 5:18?
When Jesus was about to begin his public ministry, his baptism was the occasion at which God the Father publicly announced him as God’s beloved Son and the Holy Spirit came upon him in a new and unusual way. Then, and only then, did he embark on his mission. If Jesus needed the Spirit to go into the world to redeem sinners and make disciples, how much more do modern day disciples need to “walk in the Spirit?” If we can find a way to touch on the troubles in this text without getting tangled up in them, this odd little story can provide us with a powerful opportunity to call our people to make Christ the Lord of their lives and then live for him in the power of the Spirit. Paul’s opening question is a good, shocking way to get them off balance enough to listen to the familiar Gospel call with fresh interest.
How is it possible to have the Holy Spirit, but not yet to have received the Spirit? Think of these analogies. Science tells us that our brains have much more power than we ever use. It takes education and training to experience our latent brainpower. We have a powerful brain, but we haven’t tapped into/received all that power. People interested in the paranormal claim that humans have psychic powers they literally can’t imagine, until they learn how to access and use those powers. We always have the power, but we don’t use it until we “receive” it. In the popular Spider Man story, Peter Parker is a normal teenager until he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Then he has very special abilities, but he doesn’t immediately realize what he has been given. He experiences his powers some time after they are given to him. So, we are given the gift of the Spirit who works within, but we don’t “receive” that Spirit until we learn of his presence and by faith access his leading and empowering presence.