From Simply Christian
Once we glimpse this vision of the Holy Spirit coming to live within human beings, making them temples of the living God – which ought to make us shiver in our shoes – we are able to grasp the point of the Spirit’s work in several other ways as well.
To begin with, building on the startling call to holiness we just noticed, we see right across the early Christian writings the notion that those who follow Jesus are called to fulfill the law – that is, the Torah, the Jewish law. Paul says it; James says it; Jesus himself says it. Now there are all kinds of senses in which Christians do not, and are not meant to, perform the Jewish law. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews insists that with the death of Jesus the sacrificial system came to an end, and with it the whole point of the Temple. Paul insists that when pagan men and boys believe the gospel of Jesus and get baptized, they do not have to get circumcised. Jesus himself hinted strongly that the food laws which had marked out the Jews from their pagan neighbors were to be set aside in favor of a different kind of marking out, a different kind of holiness. The early Christians, following Jesus himself, were quite clear that keeping the Jewish Sabbath was no longer mandatory, even though doing so was one of the Ten Commandments.
Nevertheless, the early Christians continued to speak not least in the passages where they talked of the Spirit, of the obligation to fulfill the law. If you are guided and energized by the Spirit, declares Paul, you will no longer do those things which the law forbids – murder, adultery, and the rest. “The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God’s law,” he writes in the Letter to the Romans. “Such a mindset does not submit to God’s law, indeed it can’t; and those of that sort cannot please God.” But, as he goes on at once, “You are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if God’s Spirit does indeed dwell in you,” (not the Temple language again). The Spirit will give life – resurrection life – to all those in whom the Spirit dwells; and this is to be anticipated (future-in-the-present language again) in holiness of life here and now, (Romans 8:7-17). Later in the same letter, he explains further: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law,” (13:10).
The point, once again, is not that the law is a convenient moral guide, ancient and venerable. It is that the Torah, like the Temple, is one of the places where Heaven and Earth meet, so that, as some Jewish teachers had suggested, those who study and keep the Torah are like those who worship in the Temple. And the early Christians are encouraging one another to live as points of intersection, points of overlap, between Heaven and Earth. Again, this sounds fearsomely difficult, not to say downright impossible. But there is no getting around it. Fortunately, as we shall see, what ought to be normal Christianity is actually all about finding out how to sustain this kind of life and even grow in it.
The fulfillment of the Torah by the Spirit is one of the main themes underlying the spectacular description, in Acts 2, of the day of Pentecost itself. To this day, Pentecost is observed in Judaism as the feast of the giving of the law. First comes Passover, the day when the Israelites leave their Egyptian slavery behind for good. Off they go through the desert, and fifty days later they reach Mount Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and comes down with the law, the tablets of the covenant, God’s gift to his people of the way of life by which they will be able to demonstrate that they really are his people.
This is the picture we ought to have in mind as we read Acts 2. The previous Passover, Jesus had died and been raised, opening the way out of slavery, the way to forgiveness and a new start for the whole world – especially for all those who follow him. Now, fifty days later, Jesus has been taken into “Heaven,” into God’s dimension of reality; but, like Moses, he comes down again, to ratify the renewed covenant and to provide the way of life, written not on stone but in human hearts, by which Jesus’s followers may gratefully demonstrate that they really are his people. That is the underlying theology by which the remarkable phenomenon of Pentecost as Luke tells it – the wind, the fire, the tongues, and the sudden, powerful proclamation of Jesus to the astonished crowds – is given its deepest meaning. Those in whom the Spirit comes to dwell are to be people who live at the intersection between Heaven and Earth.
Nor is it only Temple and Torah that are fulfilled by the Spirit. Remember the two additional ways in which, in the language of ancient Judaism, God was at work within the world: God’s word and God’s wisdom.
Spirit, Word, and Wisdom
As the early Christians reflected on what God had done in Jesus, and on what God was doing in their own life and work by his Spirit, these two themes of God’s word and God’s wisdom played a vital role in their understanding.
When the first disciples were sent off by Jesus into the wider world to announce that he was Israel’s Messiah and hence the world’s true Lord, they knew that their message would make little or no sense to most of their hearers. It was an affront to Jewish people to tell them that Israel’s Messiah had arrived – and that the Romans had crucified him at least in part becuae the Jewish leaders hadn’t wanted to accept him! It was sheer madness, something to provoke sniggers or worse, to tell non-Jews that there was a single true God who was calling the whole world to account through a man whom he had sent and whom he had raised from the dead. And yet the early Christians discovered that telling this story carried a power which they regularly associated with the Spirit, but which they often referred to simply as “the word.” Note these references from Acts: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, they spoke God’s word with boldness.” “The word of God continued to spread.” “The word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” “The word of God grew mightily and prevailed,” (Acts 4:31; 6:7; 12:24; 19:20).
Paul spoke this way, too. “When you received the word of God from us,” he wrote, “you accepted it not as a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” This is “the word of truth, the gospel which has come to you. . . bearing fruit and growing in the whole world,” (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Colossians 1:5-6). This last passage gives us another hint that the word is old as well as new: the phrase “bearing fruit and growing: is a direct allusion to the language of the first creation, of Genesis 1. “By the word of YHWH were the heavens made,” sang the Psalmist, “and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth,” (Psalm 33:6). Yes, replied the early Christians, and this same word is now at work through the good news, the “gospel,” the message that declares Jesus as the risen Lord. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart; because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” (Romans 10:8-9). In other words, when you announce the good news that the risen Jesus is Lord, that very word is the word of God, a carrier or agent of God’s Spirit, a means by which, as Isaiah had predicted, new life from God’s dimension comes to bring new creation within ours, (Isaiah 40:8; 55:10-13).
So, finally, with wisdom as well. Wisdom (personified) was already thought of within Judaism as God’s agent in creation, the one through whom the world was made. John, Paul, and the Letter to the Hebrews all draw on this idea to speak of Jesus himself as the one through whom God made the world. But it doesn’t stop there. Paul, like the book of Proverbs, goes on to speak of this wisdom (no longer personified) being accessible to humans through the power of God’s Spirit. As in Proverbs, part of the point about wisdom is that it’s what you need in order to live a fully, genuinely human life. It is not, he says, a wisdom “of this age” – that is, of the present world and the way this world sees things. It doesn’t conform to the kind of wisdom the rulers of the present world like to acknowledge. Instead, “we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory,” (1 Corinthians 2:7). God has given us access to a new kind of wisdom, through the Spirit.
All God’s treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in the Messiah himself. This means that those who belong to the Messiah have this wisdom accessible to them, and hence the chance to grow toward mature human and Christian living: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in the Messiah,” (Colossians 1:28; 2:2-3). At this point too, those in whom the Spirit dwells are called to be people who live at, and by, the intersection of Heaven and Earth.
Please note: only those who subscribe to Option Two could ever think of someone being “so Heavenly minded that they are of no Earthly use.” For Option Three, the way to be truly of use on this Earth is to be genuinely Heavenly minded – and to live as one of the places where, and the means by which, Heaven and Earth overlap.
That’s how the church is to carry forward the work of Jesus. The books of Acts says that in the previous book (referring back to the author’s earlier volume – that is, the Gospel of Luke) the writer had described “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” The implication is clear: that the story of the church, led and energized by the power of the Spirit, is the story of Jesus continuing to do and to teach – through his Spirit-led people. Once more, that’s why we pray that God’s kingdom will come, and his will will be done, “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Toward Christian Spirituality
According to Christian belief, God’s own Spirit offers the answer to the four questions with which this book began – questions about our yearnings for beauty, relationship, spirituality, and justice. We take them in reverse order.
God has promised that, through his Spirit, he will remake the creation so that it becomes what it is staining and yearning to be. All the beauty of the present world will be enhanced, ennobled, set free from that which at present corrupts and defaces it. Then there will appear that greater beauty for which the beauty we already know is simply an advance signpost.
God offers us, by the Spirit, a fresh kind of relationship with himself – and, at the same time, a fresh kind of relationship with our neighbors and with the whole of creation. The renewal of human lives by the Spirit provides the energy through which damaged and fractured human relationships can be mended and healed.
God offers us, through the Spirit, the gift of being at last what we know in our bones we were meant to be: creatures that live in both dimensions of his created order. The quest for spirituality now appears as a search for that coming together of Heaven and Earth which, deeply challenging though of course it is, is genuinely on offer to those who believe.
Finally, God wants to anticipate now, by the Spirit, a world set right, a world in which the good and joyful gift of justice has flooded creation. The work of the Spirit in the lives of individuals in the present time is designed to be another advance sign, a down payment and guarantee, as it were, of that eventual setting-right of all things. We are “justified” in the present (I’ll say more about that later) in order to bring God’s justice to the world, against the day when – still by the operation of the Spirit – the Earth is filled with the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea.
Within this remarkable picture, two things stand out about characteristically Christian spirituality.
First, Christian spirituality combines a sense of the awe and majesty of God with a sense of his intimate presence. This is hard to describe but easy to experience. As Jesus addressed God by the Aramaic family word Abba, Father, so Christians are encouraged to do the same: to come to know God in the way in which, in the best sort of family, the child knows the parent. From time-to-time I have met Christians who look puzzled at this, and say that they have no idea what all that stuff is about. I have to say that being a Christian without having at least something of that intimate knowledge of the God who is at the same time majestic, awesome, and holy sounds like a contradiction in terms. I freely grant that there may be conditions under which, because of wounds in the personality, or some special calling of God, or some other reason, people may genuinely believe in the gospel of Jesus, strive to live by the Spirit, and yet have no sense of God’s intimate presence. There is, after all, such a thing as the “dark night of the soul,” reported by some who have probed the mysteries of prayer further than most of us. But Jesus declares that the Holy Spirit will not be denied to those who ask (Luke 11:13). One of the characteristic signs of the Spirit’s work is precisely that sense of the intimate presence of God.
Second, Christian spirituality normally involves a measure of suffering. One of the times when Jesus is recorded as having used the Abba-prayer was when, in Gethsemane, he asked his Father if there was another way, if he really had to go through the horrible fate that lay in store for him. The answer was yes, he did. But if Jesus prayed like that, we can be sure that we will often have to as well. Both Paul and John lay great stress on this. Those who follow Jesus are called to live by the rules of the new world rather than the old one, and the old one won’t like it. Although the life of Heaven is designed to bring healing to the life of Earth, the powers that presently run this Earth have carved it up to their own advantage, and they resent any suggestion of a different way. That is why the powers – whether they are in politics or the media, in the professions or the business world – bitterly resent any suggestion from Christian leaders as to how things ought to be, even while sneering at the church for not “speaking out” on issues of the day.
Suffering may, then, take the form of actual persecution. Even in the liberal modern Western world – perhaps precisely in that world! – people can suffer discrimination because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. How much more so, in places where the worldview of those in power is explicitly stated to be opposed to the to the Christian faith in all its forms, as in some (not all) Muslim countries today. But suffering comes in many other forms, too: illness, depression, bereavement, moral dilemmas, poverty, tragedy, accidents, and death. Nobody reading the New Testament or any of the other Christian literature from the first two or three centuries could have accused the early Christians of painting too rosy a picture of what life would be like for those who follow Jesus. But the point is this: it is precisely when we are suffering that we can most confidently expect the Spirit to be with us. We don’t seek, or court, suffering or martyrdom. But if and when it comes, in whatever guise, we know that, as Paul says toward the end of his great Spirit-chapter, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” (Romans 8:37).
Glimpsing the Triune God
How, then, can we summarize the Christian understanding of God? What does it mean, theologically speaking, to learn to stare at the sun?
God is the creator and lover of the world. Jesus spoke of God as “the Father who sent me,” indicating that, as he says elsewhere,” anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9). Look hard at Jesus, especially as he goes to his death, and you will discover more about God than you could ever have guessed from studying the infinite shining heavens or the moral law within your own conscience. God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, the yearning for beauty. And God, the true God, is the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, the world’s true Lord. The earliest Christians spoke of God and Jesus in the same breath and, so to speak on the same side of the equation. When Paul quoted the most famous slogan of Jewish monotheism (“Hear, O Israel; YHWH our God, YHWH is One”), he explained “the Lord” – that is, YHWH – in terms of Jesus, and “God” in terms of “the Father”: “For us,” he wrote, “there is one God (the Father, from whom all things and we to him), the one Lord (Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things and we through him),” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Even earlier, he had written that if you want to know who the real God is, as opposed to the non-gods of paganism, you must think in terms of the God who, to fulfill his age-old plan to rescue the world, sent first his Son and then the Spirit of his Son, (Galatians 4:4-7).
The church’s official “doctrine of the Trinity” wasn’t fully formulated until three or four centuries after the time of Paul. Yet when the later theologians eventually worked it all through, it turned out to consist, in effect, of detailed footnotes to Paul, John, Hebrews, and the other New Testament books, with explanations designed to help later generations grasp what was already there in principle in the earliest writings.
But it would be a mistake to give the impression that the Christian doctrine of God is a matter of clever intellectual word games or mind games. For Christians it’s always a love game: God’s love for the world calling out an answering love from us, enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us (as though this was simply one aspect of his character) but that he is love itself. That’s what many theological traditions have explored as the very heart of God’s own being, the love which passes continually between Father, Son, and Spirit. Indeed, some have suggested that one way of understanding the Spirit is to see the Spirit as the personal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father. In that understanding, we are invited to share in this inner and loving life of God, by having the Spirit live within us. Some of the most evocative names and descriptions of God in the New Testament are ways of drawing us in to this inner life. “The one who searches the hearts,” writes Paul, “knows what the Spirit is thinking, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people according to God’s will,” (Romans 8:27). “The heart-searcher – there’s a divine name to ponder.
And it’s all because of Jesus. Once we glimpse the doctrine – or the fact! – of the Trinity, we dare not slide back into a generalized sense of a religion paying distant homage to a god who (though somewhat more complicated than we had previously realized) is merely a quasi-personal source of general benevolence. Christian faith is much more hard-edged, more craggy, than that. Jesus exploded into the life of ancient Israel – the life of the whole world, in fact – not as a teacher of timeless truths, nor as a great moral example, but as the one through whose life, death, and resurrection God’s rescue operation was put into effect, and the cosmos turned its great corner at last. All worldviews are challenged to the core by this claim. When they in turn challenge Christianity, it stands up remarkably well. It is because of Jesus that Christians claim they know who the creator God of the world really is. It is because he, a human being, is now with the Father in the dimension we call “Heaven” that Christians came so quickly to speak of God as both Father and Son. It is because he remains as yet in Heaven while we are on Earth (though the Spirit makes him present to us) that Christians came to speak of Spirit, too, as a distinct member of the divine Trinity. It is all because of Jesus that we speak of God the way we do.
And it is all because of Jesus that we find ourselves called to live the way we do. More particularly, it is through Jesus that we are summoned to become more truly human, to reflect the image of God into the world.