The Gospel of God in the Power of God

Updated!

The missionary James Fraser, while he was preparing to preach in SW China,  decided to go through the New Testament, especially Acts, to see how the gospel was preached. As he read through the New Testament again, he was struck by the simplicity of the gospel. So he went throughout the marketplaces of the different towns, and explained it to the others that he would meet. What he had found, when he looked for not just, “What did Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus and the apostles say, do and teach?”, was that the center of the gospel was the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and he made this the center of his own evangelistic efforts. Even more, he noted that the gospel included the call to repentance and the promise of the forgiveness of sins, and he kept these as the expected response and the promised benefit as well.

So, this takes us beyond the simple inquiry of approaching the gospels about evangelism with just the question: What did Jesus do? Here are the questions which form a starting point for a deeper, more robust inquiry:

  • What did Jesus command?
  • What did Jesus preach as the gospel?
  • What did the apostles do?
  • What did the apostles command?
  • What did the apostles preach as the gospel?

  And eventually, you will consider the question: What did Jesus teach in his post resurrection teaching? And then you come up with the outline of the gospel that James Fraser found and then the one which apostles used as they entered into the worldwide mission to spread the gospel throughout the world. The Lord Jesus himself supplied the basic outline of the gospel. In fact, he made it a central part of his teaching to the apostles during the 40 days after the resurrection, before his ascension and before the day of Pentecost. This summary of the gospel was the center of his post resurrection teaching, which was the capstone of and culmination of his earthly teaching ministry. In this post-resurrection teaching ministry it can truly be said that Jesus Christ was personally and literally bringing his church into being through his Word, and giving the apostles all that they would need to begin their mission after his ascension. It can truly be said that this often underemphasized post resurrection ministry lay behind the majority of the preaching and teaching in the book of Acts, and carried through to the New Testament books written by Peter, Paul and others.

So then, the center of his post resurrection teaching was the explanation of all that had happened in his life, ministry, death and resurrection according to the Old Testament revelation of himself as the Messiah , and then the constant reinforcement of his great concern for the spreading of the good news which centered on his own suffering and death. That was his constant command to the apostles, and to all who had become his disciples, who had witnessed his resurrection, to begin their mission. This has likewise been the continuing mission to those who have received his salvation ever since.

The need since then has ever been for the people of God to go back to his Word, and to get the message of salvation straight. The message of salvation is the gospel of life, the acquittal from the guilt of our sins by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. It is not something that we have made up, our own opinion, or religious idea, nor is it something that we have any authority or freedom to modify. It is something that we need to keep in our understanding and deepen our understanding, because we need to be sure of it to be sure of our own eternal salvation. And this is often the reason why over the years, when the church, meaning the leaders and the people in the institutional churches, there has often been a struggle within the churches with the problem of nominalism, the person with a connection to a church, but who has never truly gotten the message straight in his or her own life, and often has truly never received salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

But once we have that message straight, the need then is for the church to get it out. For the church to get it out means that we need  to make it plain to others, to witness to Jesus Christ. This means that we take the message, when we have it straight,  and share the gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus Christ himself has commanded his people. 

“And he said to them, ‘This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:46-49).

 THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST IS THE SOLE MESSAGE OF SALVATION. The Lord Jesus himself gave us the outline of the message of salvation that he wanted for his people to explain and proclaim. It is his offer to the whole world of himself as Lord and Savior, and the message originates with him. It is not a Western, white man’s gospel, but it comes from a man from the Middle East, who grew up there, lived there, and died at the hands of an occupying army, and who rose from the dead beyond all expectations. He then gave the whole world the message of who he is, and what he has done for us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, and it is the only message that he has given his people as the basis of eternal salvation.  And because it is his message, no one afterward has the right or authority, especially among those who would claim to be his followers,  to change it, edit it or try to suppress it by any means.

Of course, gospel means ‘good news’, and Jesus Christ himself is the center of the good news of the gospel. The only gospel that the Bible contains and recognizes has Jesus as the summary and the entire message. Therefore, to evangelize means to explain and emphasize the crucified and risen Lord as the scriptures present him to us. To try to put another message in its place is to attempt to present a Jesus or a Messiah other than the one which the Bible has presented or one which Jesus himself did not mention or recognize.

This is how Jesus himself summarized his gospel: “This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (v. 46). The summary of the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus was himself, as he fulfilled the scriptures, and he was himself his own visual aid and living proof of all that he explained. First, he explained all that the disciples had seen and experienced with him in the context of the Old Testament revelation of what the Messiah would be. This is part of the prior context of this statement, of the teaching about himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26-27 and immediately preceding this statement in Luke 24: 44-45. All that he said cannot have been forgotten in the days afterwards; it beggars belief for anyone to think that anyone would not remember the the words of someone so familiar to them standing in front of them, whom they had seen die but were now seeing risen with the scars of his crucifixion upon him. And in his words he first of all explained how all this was in fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures, which they had known intimately from their earliest childhood,  as the Messiah of Israel. They would remember how during his preaching and teaching ministry before his crucifixion in Jerusalem how he had so often then presented himself as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world through the gospel. But there was a difference now, all that he had said and done was now for them to have as the center of their message, the only Christ who saves, the Son of God of the New Testament. Among them, children of the most assertively monotheistic nation of the ancient world, he had credibly presented himself as the Son of God, and was now standing before them and making sure that they saw, knew and recognized that he was the center of their message. For two thousand years, since God first spoke to Abraham, then, the tutorial of the Jewish nation that there was one holy God who created and ruled the world was now finding its fulfillment in the person of his Messiah, who had come to present his salvation to the world.

The message that Jesus Christ gave, the gospel message which he gave, is the message which his people, from the apostles onward, has needed to get and to keep straight. The church has never been the origin nor the judge of the message, but rather the steward of the message. And it is correct to assert along with the Reformers that the church is not the source of this gospel but rather that Jesus Christ creates the church through his gospel. And even more, the gospel will therefore include every implication and application of the death and resurrection of Jesus also throughout the New Testament, since the emphasis is not just on the fact but upon its meaning in the life of the world and its call to every person upon this earth. This then means what the apostle Paul called the scandal, the stumbling block, of the  cross to his day and age, the truth that all have sinned in this lost and dying world, and that there is no salvation in our own wisdom, speculations or attempts at good deeds, but only through the Jesus who died and rose again according to the scriptures, as Jesus himself has outlined in his gospel. This gospel is the only message which Jesus has given as the basis for saving faith, the message about himself, and the only message to which his Holy Spirit will bear witness. Therefore the only real witness, the only missional statement, the basis of scriptural evangelism and missions, is Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

The method that the apostles used, then, to proclaim Jesus did not seem to be a rote memorization of an outline with supporting verses. Rather, they seemed to be immersed in the truth of the gospel, had the  passages which Jesus himself probably explained to them deep within their hearts, and had a number of talking points to explain the gospel. They seemed to be knowledgeable enough to give a clear and understandable reference and allusion to a verse during preaching and teaching, even if it was more of an explanatory paraphrase. But the center of their preaching and teaching was still Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, crucified and risen. And the centrality of the cross, the Messiah who had suffered, filled their preaching and teaching as the heart of the gospel.

It is, then, the gospel message itself, the truth of the saving Christ, that brings his church to life, and it is not the other way around. In fact, one of the signs of a church or denomination that has begun or has the potential for a deep decline is when anyone gets an idea that he or she can fiddle with the gospel of Jesus and the message of the crucified and risen Messiah in any way. The decline of a church, Christian organization, then, comes with  the infiltration of people into positions of leadership who are not sold out completely to the gospel of salvation in some way. Maybe they do not indulge in a completely outright denial, perhaps, but usually comes down to the consideration and acceptance idea that there might be or is some other way to salvation other than Jesus Christ himself. What happens is that these people start to substitute their own speculations and superficial reasonings for the plain statements of Jesus Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. What this often comes down to, then, is that they try to figure out how to make it something with which we are comfortable and that we think that we can control and something that we think will be acceptable to the type of unbelievers that we want to become a part of our churches. The gospel of a living Lord who died for us is certainly nothing that that we can either find easily comfortable nor anything that we can control, but it is certainly something with which we can find full assurance, as something with which we need not be embarrassed before anyone in this world: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . .” (Romans 1:16-17).

Lately, then, I’ve also been seeing a confusion creep back into the evangelical church of evangelism with ministries of compassion, where evangelism is equated with actions like feeding the poor and homeless. For a generation since World War II this confusion was mercifully absent from the ministries of the evangelical church, where it was recognized as an unscriptural equivocation and foreign import from old mainline liberalism. That following Jesus means compassionate concern for the poor and downtrodden has really never been much in dispute in the evangelical church; the deliberate confusion of compassionate work for the poor with evangelism in terms of communication of the gospel has always been something that those serious about Biblical authority and who have examined the scriptures have rejected.  And it’s easy to see that the apostles themselves did not consider concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10) and evangelism (Galatians 2:7-8) to be the same thing. And the truth is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is as much for the up-and-outer – for example, the divorced rich man, for instance, living in an ornate home but drinking himself to sleep every night – as it is, for example, the skid row alcoholic, the down and outer, the homeless man in tattered clothes who likewise self medicates through alcohol in one of the many paths to self ruination of fallen human nature. And the problem with this confusion of evangelism with ministries of compassion is that it usually ends up destroying evangelism, and the ministries of compassion end up being small efforts with which busy and self absorbed church members feel comfortable. I do not think that it’s too much to say that this eventually becomes humanitarianism without a Savior and without a cross.

The promise, then, of the scriptural gospel  is salvation. It is the forgiveness of sins to those who repent of their sins. Salvation from the real guilt of sin before God, therefore, is the promise of Jesus Christ himself, to those who come to him in repentance. And the fact that Jesus himself outlines repentance as the expected response to his gospel and the forgiveness of sins as the promised result shows that neither of these can be excised from the preaching of the gospel, from scriptural evangelism or from Biblically based missions upon any earthly, human authority. Rather, these are part of the scriptural gospel from beginning to end, as undersigned by Jesus Christ himself.

In verse 47, then, Jesus went on to state, “ . . . and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” By his own words he made the promise of scripture that his gospel brings forgiveness of sins, and from the very heart of the Middle East, the city of Jerusalem, this promise would be made known and available to all the world. His name, the name of the crucified and risen Son of God, would be the signature upon the pardon available to all those who had sinned, upon the response of repentance. His death and resurrection that he had paid the price for the forgiveness of sins and his authority as Lord of all meant that he had the eternal right to grant forgiveness of sins to the whole world. And consider this, that the crucified and risen Lord presented this as the fundamental need of the whole world: not of political or economic liberation, nor physical sustenance, though those may be real needs in themselves for some in this life, but that the problem was sin and the solution was the forgiveness which he had come to provide. That need was so important that he had gone to the cross to make it available.

It is also, then, within the very same sentence, the word of Jesus that repentance is part of the reception of his salvation. Repentance in itself cannot be an earning of salvation, but rather it is a change of allegiance, a turning from one’s own way and a life in disobedience to God, which keeps the forgiveness which came at his own death from becoming a permission to sin. It is his expectation that his granting forgiveness of sins once, completely and forever, would be received with a change of direction from one’s own sin and selfishness to the entire, wholehearted commitment to the will of God, to the Son of God as Lord of one’s life from then on. And this would also include a change of heart toward Jesus himself , of repentance from the sin of rejecting him as Messiah to faith in him as one’s Savior and Messiah once and forever. At it worked itself out, then, in the apostolic preaching and teaching of the gospel, repentance led to living as a disciple of Jesus with Jesus as Lord over one’s life. (For more on the relationship of saving faith and repentance in the scriptures, see John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul and the Imperative Mood in Evangelism.)

The promise of the forgiveness of sins addresses the need that everyone everywhere in the world will always need first of all, the need to get right with God because of the guilt of their sins. Even more, the need of repentance as this response means that the forgiveness of sins that Jesus offers cannot be cheap grace, the permission of continuing in the sin which offends and alienates God, which treats God as a fool in offering a forgiveness which requires no change of life. Because people are naturally sinners by nature and by choice, there is that  condition of repentance, a change of heart before God and his will and a rejection of sin as the ruling power and authority in one’s life. This forgiveness of God then is not the geniality of an easy going God, but the gift of the God who hated sin and loved sinners to the point of providing the death of his Son on the cross and who raised Jesus to life to be Lord of all. The need of reconciliation with God, of a complete turnabout from sin to God to receive his salvation addresses the real need of people everywhere at every time. There may be some felt needs associated with this need for forgiveness, but the gospel then goes through to the real need of forgiveness of sin and salvation in Christ of everyone everywhere. And right here Jesus joins together both a gospel command – repentance – with a gospel promise – forgiveness of sins. So it’s normal, within the practice of Jesus himself, to join together both the commands and promises of the gospel with the presentation of the gospel, and Gospel commands and gospel promises were certainly presented together as during New Testament evangelism.

First, then, if anyone everywhere is ever to have any assurance of eternal life, it will be through the acceptance of the scriptural gospel, through becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. If anyone anywhere has been truly saved, it is because he or she has repented and received the forgiveness of sins upon the personal signature of Jesus Christ himself in his gospel. Getting the message straight, then, will first of all mean that the power and truth of the scriptural gospel will become and continue as a part of one’s own personal experience first of all. It will mean that one can tell others about the power of God to save through the gospel of Jesus Christ because that person has already experienced the saving power of the truth of God.

Second, the forgiveness of sins Jesus promises speaks to a need of the human heart which other religions address in some way, but never with a complete pardon based upon repentance. For instance, often people who claim to be Christians in the USA may in some way ascribe to the reincarnation and karma in a kind of syncretism with Hinduism on these matters. It has amazed me personally how much Hinduism resembles the pre-Christian religions and philosophies of the pre Christian West, the old Roman empire, which Christianity basically destroyed, such as Pythagoreanism with its emphasis on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, the pantheism of Stoicism and mythologies with the multiple gods and goddesses and occult and magic of pagan religion. Hinduism even is based in part on the Vedas, which are more like the ancient Greek epic poems the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Theogony, which event the ancient Greek pagan writers, such as the poet and philosopher Xenophanes credited for the portrayal of the gods and goddesses of old paganism, and which even contain the old Indo European sky god Dyaus, who is known as Zeus among the Greeks and Jupiter among the Romans.   It seems like many Christians never realize the extreme contrast of all that there is from the Old Testament to the New Testament with what there is in Hinduism. Historically and theologically, Hinduism resembles much more the old philosophies and religions of the early Roman empire, the pre-Christian Western paganism, than what we find with the gospel of Jesus Christ that arose in the strict monotheism of post-exilic Palestinian Judaism. With Jesus, though, we have a real person lived in history, of the unabashedly monotheistic Jewish race and religion which continues today, and who lived in an easily verifiable time and place in history. We have someone whose teachings were not philosophical speculations and who offered not repetitious mantras but an approach to God in prayer as a loving Father and as the same person and personality that he created you to be. We have a Savior who died on a Roman cross and came to life with many witnesses in a historically verifiable time and place. And he offers the complete forgiveness of sins through his own death and resurrection instead of a continuous series of millions of reincarnations through various forms of life to wipe out the sins of an undefined past karma. And the gospel and promise of Jesus is is not the religion of a colonial power but the power of a man who lived, died and started the mission to reach the world in the heart of the Middle East, in a city under the domination of the world empire of that period.

So then, the Lord Jesus has given his message to the world, to be communicated by those who have received his salvation. But that is not all that he has given those whom he has called to be his witnesses. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for messengers filled with the Holy Spirit. The communication of the supernatural gospel of salvation was never left up to the natural abilities of anyone. The message calls for messengers, and the risen Lord has given his requirement and promise that it is not to be left up just to the human abilities of the messengers. Even more, he has promised the supernatural promise of the Holy Spirit to his messengers, so that they can take it beyond where they would naturally be able to go of themselves and speak it with a power that no one of them would ever have in themselves.

First, the declaration of the Lord Jesus is that his followers are to be his witnesses, and this declaration is both a statement of fact and a command. Those who receive his salvation are to be the messengers of his salvation. It is not too much to say that this expectation of the risen Lord himself is that every believer has already been appointed a missionary in the part of the world where he or she lives regardless of the opinions of any human mission board or agency.

In verse 48, then, Jesus simply states, “You are witnesses of these things.” The first witnesses were the apostles, who were the prime eyewitnesses of his death and resurrection. But this declaration has never been understood to apply simply to the twelve apostles, but to everyone who has received his salvation thereafter. Here he makes the simple appointment of his followers to be his witnesses. Since then every believer in Jesus Christ, who has come to know the Lord of salvation, has been responsible to be a witness to the Savior. This simple declaration of Jesus Christ himself appoints all his followers in all ages as his witnesses. No one in any kind of church hierarchy can therefore override his simple appointment.No ordaining council, no laying on of human hands, no certificates or letters of recommendation from anyone nor underground opposition even from other believers else is either necessary to endorse his declaration nor can they contradict his declaration or appointment.

The believer in Jesus Christ who has experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ and who knows the living reality of the Savior in his or her life can therefore testify to the Savior and the reality of his salvation. The power of his salvation in our lives is our testimony, backed by the truth of the gospel events in the Bible and the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, and even more by the power of the gospel through the Holy Spirit. The present day believer is still responsible to explain the way of God’s salvation as in the Bible and to be a witness to the salvation of Jesus which he or she has already received, or otherwise, the reasonable conclusion is that he or she is not a believer at all if he or she has no Savior or no salvation to which he or she can testify. From all that there is in the New Testament, from the words of Jesus himself before and after the resurrection, each believer is called to be a witness to this world of the salvation that he or she has received or he or she is not a follower of Jesus Christ. It is as A. B. Simpson once said: “We are missionaries, every one of us with a commission and trust as definite as those we send overseas.”

So then, evangelism comes down just to simple obedience to be a witness to Jesus. I’ve heard over the years some strange justifications for evangelism, such as those who seek to lead lots of outward decisions for Christ, because they thought that the person would never then be lost – this is based upon an underlying belief in the eternal security of the believer based in a kind of pop Calvinism. Or, those who may have a prior underlying belief in a pre-tribulation rapture to try to get as many decisions for Christ before the rapture, and even presenting the pre-tribulation rapture as itself being a reason to pray the Jesus prayer, so that you won’t be left behind. But these kinds of justifications are really never necessary, since Jesus simply gives his people the assignment to be his witnesses, and his people simply need to be obedient to his assignment.

A reasonable application of this assignment would be for each believer in Christ to make it a goal for one’s life to be a witness for Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  This would entail first of all, becoming as consistent a disciple of Jesus Christ as possible and to know the Word and the gospel clearly enough to be able to share it with someone else. Furthermore,  churches need to see evangelism training not only as swelling their numbers locally, but also as training for evangelizing cross culturally. And certainly the official leadership of the church needs to understand its own role to equip the church for this according to their own assignment in Ephesians 4:11-12 and never, ever to let anyone in the professing church to get away with trying to put any kind of obstacle in the path of anyone who seeks to be a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  And in view of the fact that persecution may strike and scatter a church at any time, such as in Acts 8, it is crucial to make this a consistent part of our ministry in the body of Christ, since unexpected persecution may lead to a growth in the church by scattering the witnesses.

Here are then some suggestions as to how a person in a relatively affluent culture such as in North America, Europe and developed nations such as Japan, or perhaps anyone who is in a nation with some kind of educational system. Early in life, there are some preparations that a person can make to be available and prepared as a witness from very early in life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn other languages, whether within a school system or even as a family and personal project. Take linguistics courses if possible and learn the cultures as well as the languages. These languages in particular may prepare you for being a witness in parts of the world where the gospel has not been communicated thoroughly: Hindi, Russian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Farsi. Then do such things as get a Bible and memorize key evangelistic verses in those languages and write your testimony and translate it or even familiarize yourself with gospel literature in those languages.
  • Get a passport for international travel and keep it current.
  • Develop and keep job skills that are both marketable and useful worldwide, that could prepare one for vocational ministry throughout the world. Engineering and software development are two areas of expertise which could open doors to personal ministry worldwide now. (For parents seeking to motivate children in languages, science and math, that these subjects may help to open doors for ministry worldwide if they lead to vocational expertise in worldwide demand may help.)
  • Learn to live frugally in terms of resources and resiliently in the face of deprivation and difficulties.

To those who will be his witnesses, then, God promises the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Those whom Jesus Christ has appointed to be his witnesses have the power of God available to them through the Holy Spirit, and this is his basic spiritual equipment to spread the gospel.

Jesus then concludes his instructions to the apostles in verse 49: “And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” His instructions were to remain in Jerusalem for a little while until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and all this is expanded upon in the book of Acts, chapters 1 and 2, with the results continuing through chapter 28 of the book of Acts. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church would then come upon the church by the authority of Jesus himself to those who had prepared themselves by uniting in prayer. This shows the scriptural emphasis of the day of Pentecost: it is not so much the ‘birthday’ of the church, in that phrase borrowed from Augustine and repeated since then. Rather, it is the empowerment of the church to spread the gospel to all nations. And this is explained in the words of the risen Jesus to the apostles in Acts 1:8: “But you will received power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the furthest extent of the earth.”

This, then, is the highest and most scriptural reason for anyone to welcome, seek and receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in his or her life: to glorify God through being a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in this earth. So many people may seek to know the power of the Spirit of God to experience happiness or to try to be something in themselves or to accomplish something to make themselves look good in front of other people. Rather, the highest scriptural reason to seek the power of the Spirit of God, from the words of Jesus himself, are to have the full spiritual equipment to fulfill the mission that he has given us to be his witnesses. This is why so many, when they give themselves in full consecration to God receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, since that consecration includes the consecration of oneself to be witness in the power of the Spirit – and if it doesn’t, then that full consecration is not complete, because something of such supreme importance is being held back. Therefore the fullness of the Holy Spirit, the enduement of spiritual power from God himself, the power in which Jesus himself spoke and ministered throughout his earthly ministry, is the primary qualification for evangelism and ministry, as it has been throughout all the ages of the church and everywhere in the world.

Clearing up this one point can often be a spiritual breakthrough to new life and ministry for many, many people. For instance, a church elder once asked Charles Finney, “Mr. Finney, what would you think of a man who was praying week after week for the Holy Spirit but could get no answer?”

Finney replied that he thought that such a person would be praying from false motives. So the elder asked the further question, “But from what motives should a man pray? If he wants to be happy, is that a false motive?”

So Finney continued with his reply, “Satan might pray with as good a motive as that,” and he quoted Psalm 51:13: “’Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will be converted unto thee.’” And Finney concluded, “The Psalmist did not pray for the Holy Spirit that he might be happy, but that he might be useful and that sinners might be converted to Christ.”

Shortly afterward, Finney went out and when he returned later, he found out that the elder had come to this conclusion about himself: “What you said forced upon me the conviction that I had never really been converted, that I never had any higher motive than a mere selfish desire for my own happiness.” This conclusion had broken him, and he became a new man through true repentance and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

So then, if you are today a believer in Jesus Christ, it is because someone else was faithful enough to his or her assignment to have shared the gospel with you. Someone else was gracious enough and cared enough to share with you the greatest news in the world to meet your greatest need. And thus you are likewise called to be a part of the chain of witnesses around the world and across the centuries, to bring the gospel to others in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So this then brings to us the question: have we – each of us, not just some of us – really every put in the time to seek and to receive all the ministries of the Holy Spirit that are involved with spreading the gospel and with empowering our witness? Consider further what Jesus had to say about this: “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who is from the Father, he will witness about me; and you yourselves will bear witness, since you have been with me from the beginning . . . if I go away, I will send him to you, and when he has come, he will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, since I am going to the Father, and you will no longer see me; and of judgment, because the rule of the world has already been judged” (John 15:26-27, 16:7-11). There is obviously more exposition of these scriptures that could be done, but this shows us that Jesus spoke about the conviction of the Holy Spirit not as some kind of magical guilt-trip mist but connects his work of conviction with the ministry of the gospel through his disciples. But even more, we can trust the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, will then make us as passionate, confident, forthright and loving in the communication of the gospel as Jesus himself.

So then, this brings back the question on whether the churches in the USA have been sidetracked away from this that Jesus has spoken with the ‘seeker friendly, church services for seekers’ mentality since the early 1990s. Personally, the more I think and pray about it, that mentality gave far too much credit to fallen human nature, that anyone apart from Christ knows what he or she is seeking but is spiritually shy about it, and far too little to the seeking and saving initiative of God in Jesus Christ through his people. It often seems to assume that the real need is for the shy seeker is just some information offered in an entertaining and non-threatening way, and that the shy seekers may come to Christ if they just have several questions answered. Rather, what scripture says about fallen human beings is that, “  . . . if our gospel has been concealed, it is concealed among those who are perishing, in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds so that they cannot see the light of the the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God . . . and we ourselves were dead in our trespasses and sins, in which we once went about according to the fashion of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience; in whom we once conducted ourselves by the desires of our human nature and acted on the wishes of our human nature and our own understanding, and we were by nature children of wrath as the rest of mankind . . .” ( , II Corinthians 4:3-4, Ephesians 2:1-3). And who among us can give any real amount of credence to our having received salvation to our own seeking and receiving information, as much as to the reality that “ . . . God, who said, ‘Out of darkness let light shine,’ is the one who has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).

Scripturally, the gospel of God in the power of God can bring a person to salvation in a very short time, and no protracted times of seeking or conviction are really necessary. Rather, the gospel of God in the Spirit of God can take a hardened sinner into salvation in a very short time. For instance, does anyone really think that the 3000 saved on Pentecost were really just seekers after salvation in Christ, and just needed several questions answered in order to come to repentance and find salvation in Christ? Did the apostles ever use community theater as a normal evangelistic method? Even more, though there will be seasons of openness to the gospel in the lives of many throughout their lives, there is really no scriptural necessity that gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit must wait for those period of openness in the lives of others. Rather, many, many times gospel of God in the power of God through the Holy Spirit has opened up hearts and in an astonishingly short time from the perspective of man.

The call of the Lord Jesus to witness continues to come to us today through his Word. He himself has already done the most essential part in his death on the cross when he took the penalty for our sin that we deserved. His death is the reason that through the gospel God offers forgiveness instead of his wrath. The living Lord then stands by his people now who are his witnesses with all the power of the Holy Spirit, and so his plan is that we should share the life changing message that all need to hear, the life changing message that we share out of love for the Lord and for others who have the same need what we have had for the Savior.

If you, then, have already received Jesus Christ as your Savior in repentance and faith, then you have already received the first and greatest qualification to be a witness to his salvation. Moreover, the Lord Jesus himself extends the assignment to you personally. So consider and address every excuse that you may have as to why you cannot witness to him now, since you will one day come face to face before him to give account for all your life, and that includes your assignment to witness to him. Consider that the acknowledgment of him as Lord and Master means that acceptance of his assignment to be his witness. Make it your personal act of submission to him to be his witness out of love to him, and seek from him the opportunities for witness. Accept no message coming from you life other than the scriptural gospel of salvation. And furthermore, consider it to be unacceptable for you or any other believer to in any try to set any kind of obstacles or stumbling blocks to anyone else seeking to witness for Jesus Christ.

In addition, then, if you have been born again of the Holy Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ, make it your goal to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. The fullness of his Spirit is the power to love and to witness to Jesus Christ beyond anything that we are in ourselves, and he takes us beyond any of the fear, intimidation and self concern and self consciousness before a world that is often hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, don’t leave home without him.

What Day Was YESTERDAY?

I’m writing this on the morning of Memorial Day, May 28, 2012. It struck me that yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, and I didn’t hear a word about it in church. There was the usual and rightful recognition and honor of those who had served in the military. Sometimes we honor college and high school graduates about this same time also in our churches, and may even have a sermon directed toward them in some way. But I cannot remember any Sunday ever in the years that I’ve attended a church – whether the mainline church before I came to faith in Christ or the evangelical churches since – that Pentecost Sunday was ever even mentioned. And when I served as a pastor, the thought never struck me to give any kind of recognition to Pentecost Sunday. And the same goes for Ascension Sunday. This is traditionally the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday, and it commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven after his resurrection. But I cannot think of any time that I can remember it ever being mentioned in any of the evangelical churches that I’ve attended.

Here’s the significance of these observations. In our churches we often have special services, preaching and celebrations, and quite rightly, of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, as we remember and celebrate the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition, there may also be special services and sermons during the cultural holidays of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and sometimes even Valentine’s Day. But these two Sundays, which commemorate the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, are very significant both Biblically and theologically, and were considered practically equal to Christmas in the early church. Somehow these two celebrations became overlooked, and our cultural celebrations intruded. And in our churches we’ve carried on, because often enough in our evangelical churches our routines become our liturgy and the way we did things last year become our tradition.

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s not use these days as a chance to put together another set of traditions. Rather, let’s give our preaching and teaching to such subjects as the Lordship of Christ, the ascension and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the church for the beginning of its worldwide mission from Ephesians 1:21-23 and the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. (To be honest, I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon on the day of Pentecost in an evangelical church.) Let’s bring back some of the great hymns and music of the church which celebrate these events and their continuing significance. Next year, 2013, in the western church, these days are May 12 and May 19. Ascension Sunday and Mothers Day are on the same Sunday, so my suggestion would be to recognize Mothers Day but center the Sunday on the ascension and exaltation of Jesus Christ in both the music, praying and preaching. I think that would put things into proper perspective.

As far as preaching and teaching on these subjects, a theology of the New Testament and a systematic theology should give a wealth of material, as well as simply looking, studying, and meditating on the Biblical passages. In addition, there is an excellent little book on the ascension (The Ascended Christ) by Henry Barclay Swete which is a free Google eBook.

Sign On the Dotted Line . . .

Here’s how Charles G. Finney told about his experience of receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit: “As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. It seemed to me that a reality that he stood right before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child and made such confessions as I could make with my choked words. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears, and yet I have no distinct impression that I touched him . . . as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit . . . the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner which seemed to go through me, body and soul . . . it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way . . .”

Finney’s experience illustrates the truth, that the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ is the one who gives the gift and fullness of the Holy Spirit. The accounts of the gospels, though, show that he had to be baptized, receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit and continue on in ministry until his crucifixion and ascension, before he could confer the gift of the Holy Spirit upon others.

Some time during the ministry of John the Baptist, about 27 AD or so, before Herod Antipas imprisoned and later beheaded him, John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. This is mentioned in all four gospels, and was the momentous event that marked the beginning of the ministry of Jesus and the fulfillment of his Messianic mission.

But the occasion of the baptism of Jesus is means much for us also in our lives as well as his followers, if we have put our faith in him as our Lord and Savior. It has huge implications for two often needlessly controversial issues for believers in Jesus Christ, those of water baptism and the enduement of the Holy Spirit. The Lord himself fulfilled the commands that he later addressed to his followers, in two versions of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20 and Luke 24:46-49). As we look further into what these meant, what happened in the baptism of Jesus addresses these issues decisively. For all the arguments that anyone can make who would claim to have put his or her faith in Jesus Christ that he or she does not need to be baptized, all of them would apply most of all to Jesus. If there ever lived anyone that did not need to be baptized, it was Jesus – and he went in obedience to the will of the Father to be baptized. For all the arguments that anyone can make that he or she is a follower of Jesus Christ but does not need to be filled with the Holy Spirit and minister and witness in the power of the Spirit, again, each one of those arguments would apply even more to Jesus. If there lived anyone who did not need the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit for ministry, it was Jesus – and he received the fullness of the Holy Spirit at his baptism and went forth to his earthly ministry. The gospel of Luke especially emphasizes that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, wholly God, was yet wholly man as well and fulfilled his ministry through his sinless humanity as a Spirit filled man.

But there’s even more in the baptism of Jesus that is significant for the believer in Jesus Christ. At the occasion of the baptism, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, the revelation of the triune nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, shines through brilliantly. This truth later becomes more unfolded through the teaching of Jesus and then the apostles, and has been the firm conviction of the church since then, that God is one God who exists and who expresses himself in the three Persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Here is how the gospel of Luke describes the baptism of Jesus: “And it came about that while the whole nation was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized, and while he was praying heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in bodily form like a dove, and there was voice from heaven that said, ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22).

The baptism of Jesus was the sign of the beginning of his Messianic ministry. This was his own act of self dedication and consecration to the ministry that he came to fulfill as the Son of God. It was a unique sign of the unique person who had come as the kingdom of God in person, the Messianic King.

First of all, Jesus’s baptism was unique among all the baptisms that took place before his. He submitted to baptism as the one who would be the one who would later baptize with the Holy Spirit. He went in obedience to the will of the Father, even though John the Baptist himself recognized who Jesus was and felt reluctant to baptize him in water (Matthew 3:13-14). Though the others before Jesus who had been baptized had done so as an act of repentance and confessed their sins as part of being baptized (Mark 1:5). But Jesus did not let any possible misunderstandings of his baptism, such as it being a possible denial of his own sinlessness by submitting to a baptism which for others was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, stop him from submitting to baptism. Rather, he went forward in obedience to the will of the Father, and then received the witness of the voice of the Father of his entire approval of his Son.

This shows us the proper approach to baptism, as an act of obedience, in submission and obedience to the word of God. For us as well as Jesus, it is an act of personal consecration. It is something for those who have put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior to do despite what the traditions, opinions and possible misunderstandings of others. The New Testament, from the gospels to the book of Acts to the letters of Paul and Peter, consider baptism the normal outcome of genuine conversion. The normal mode would be by immersion, as shown by the descriptions of Jesus coming up out of the water (Matthew 3:15), and its treatment as an enactment of being buried and raised with Christ (Romans 6:1-13), as an identification with him in his death and resurrection. Certainly if there was anyone who could have been baptized as an infant by sprinkling, it would have been Jesus, but he was baptized as an adult, by immersion in water, with a full understanding of what he was doing.

Though there has been much written and said about baptism since 27 A.D., most of it needs to go to parts of the New Testament which do not explicitly speak about baptism. Even the book Catholicism by Richard McBrien, certified as being compatible with the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledges that the normal mode of baptism during apostolic times was the baptism of believers by immersion. What A. T. Pierson passed on about the scriptural study and conviction of George Mueller summarizes what may be found fairly from the study of the New Testament on baptism: “. . . he records the solemn conviction that of all revealed truths, no one is more clearly revealed in the scriptures – not even the doctrine of justification by faith – and that the subject has only been obscured by men not having been willing to take the Scriptures alone to decide the point.”

But the baptism of Jesus was marked not just by the act of him being baptized. His self consecration to his Messianic ministry was marked by the gift of the full Messianic anointing of the Holy Spirit. This was his empowerment for ministry as the Son of God in person and authority but as the Spirit filled Messianic King,

In the immediately preceding context of the prophecy of John the Baptist about the coming Messiah who would answer water baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, there is Jesus who is baptized and who himself receives the Holy Spirit in all his fullness. He himself was baptized in water and in the Holy Spirit so that he could be the One who would minister in the power of the Holy Spirit and then give the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was already perfect and sinless in himself, so if there was anyone who did not need the power of the Holy Spirit for ministry, it was Jesus Christ. This was the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah being filled with the Spirit (Isaiah 11: 2) and this enduement gave him a power, guidance and wisdom beyond that of his unfallen human nature for ministry as the Messianic King. It is noteworthy also that Jesus was praying at the time of the Holy Spirit. From our being able to hear the words of his prayers such as in John 17:5, it’s hard to see him praying for the reception of the Messianic anointing of the Spirit and willingly receiving it in prayer, so that the power of the Spirit came to him with his full consent and willingness. And even more, that the Holy Spirit came up0n him in bodily form as a dove shows that the manifestation of tongues, such as on the day of Pentecost, was not to be in all ages and in all times the normative and definitive sign of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, but rather the ministry in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1, 4:14, Acts 1:8).

Again, this shows the importance to the believer in Jesus Christ to have the possession of the gift of the Holy Spirit and then to have the fullness of the Spirit. Even more do we need the Holy Spirit to empower, guide and transform our personalities. If Jesus, sinless as he was, ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit, we must also have the same power of the Spirit in our lives. Even more do we need his Spirit in our lives, to live in his victory over sin, to become like him, and to minister as his representatives in the power of the Spirit. Certainly if anyone of us has put his or her faith in Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation, we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit as the seal of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). But even so, the apostle goes on to call us to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:21), and that is something that we cannot take for granted that we are being filled with the Spirit if we do not know that we are being filled with the Spirit.

That Jesus prayed as the Holy Spirit descended upon him was fully consistent with his own encouragement for his disciples to ask for the Holy Spirit from the goodness of God the Father (Luke 11:13). The apostles then put this into practice in the days up to and including Pentecost, when they prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church as the inception of the worldwide ministry of the church, and this was at the explicit command of Jesus himself (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8). Even after the day of Pentecost, they gathered together in prayer in response to the threats in Jerusalem and received renewed power for ministry (Acts 4:29-31). And this did not not end there; for instance, John and Charles Wesley told about a time when they were joined together in prayer, and the Holy Spirit came upon them with power for ministry. And the same testimony came from Charles Finney, as previously mentioned, and Dwight L. Moody, A. B. Simpson, and A. W. Tozer, and many others who have been used by God over the years. (For more, see James Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians).

For myself, I count myself unbelievably blessed that I experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit at the time of my baptism. For me, it happened kind of like it happened with Jesus, with the filling of the Holy Spirit with power for ministry at the same time as I went to water baptism by immersion out of submission to the Word of God and obedience to the Lord. It would have taken place about 4 PM on January 23, 1976, at the Oxford Church of Christ, in Oxford, Ohio. I didn’t speak in tongues or show any similar manifestation, but I did experience a wonderful new consciousness in Christ. I was filled with a new joy and a new aliveness in prayer and love for other believers. My own experience is a pattern for no one else, but I do count myself blessed that it did happen in kind of the same way with me as it did with Jesus.

Therefore, the baptism of Jesus Christ and his enduement of power for ministry sets a strong, unanswerable precedent for the believer in Jesus Christ. The possibility and necessity of both baptism and the power of the Spirit for ministry for the believer are ultimately shown by Jesus Christ himself. It’s quite amazing how many may consider themselves believers in Jesus and seeking to do WWJD (What Did Jesus Do?) who may be seeking to glean moral guidance from the gospels but totally missing the significance for them of the baptism of Jesus and how Jesus began and fulfilled his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. If you are looking to the WWJD ethic for guidance, have you been baptized? Or if you talk about WWJD, have you sought to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

But even more, the baptism of Jesus revealed the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We call God in his revelation of himself as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit as triune, and his nature as the Trinity. There was this demonstration of himself as something of the reality and relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God.

In this event of the baptism of Jesus, God disclosed himself as three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit appearing simultaneously. This then became as the ministry and teaching of Jesus progressed in his earthly life and through the ministry of the apostles, a continuing revelation, and it becomes natural throughout the New Testament to speak of God revealing himself as the Father, God revealing himself as God the Son, and God revealing himself as God the Holy Spirit. It becomes constant to mention together the three Persons of the Trinity. The Word of God itself is the basis for the belief in the triune nature of God, through this constant mentioning together of the three Persons of the Trinity and the ascription of divinity and the attributes of deity to all three Persons named as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, this was based first in the teaching of Jesus and continued through the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament.

But the teaching that God exists in three Persons does not detract from the belief that there is one God and not three Gods. The word Trinity came to summarize the belief, drawn from careful study of the scriptures and the careful words of Jesus and the apostles, that there is one God who expresses himself in three Persons. The New Testament came from the nation of the Jews, and assumes the constant teaching of the Old Testament, which is also affirmed in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, that there is only one God. Certainly it is a matter beyond our understanding, but not beyond our faith and experience of God. A.W. Tozer called the doctrine of the Trinity, “truth for the heart.” John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

This revelation of the Trinity throughout the New Testament, in the constant mention together of the three Persons, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the description of each as a fully divine Person, yet as one God, has remained for two thousand years the constant affirmation and conviction of the church of Jesus Christ. The denial of the Triune nature of God has always been ultimately considered a mark of false teaching and a mark of teaching untrue to the faith of the apostles and the teaching of Jesus. The two departures are either the denial of the deity of any of the Three Persons, the confusion of the persons into one, or the denial or the unity of only one God, and therefore teachings which go into those directions are not to be accepted as the truth of God or the teaching of the New Testament.

The truth of scripture sets forth this wonderful yet unimaginable truth of one God who exists in three Persons. Though this truth is beyond our understanding, yet it still calls for us to receive it reverently as what God has revealed himself to be.

The revelation of God as Trinity shows us that the God of the Bible is beyond our own thoughts. He is not a figment of the imaginations of human beings, but much more than the imaginations of mankind. He is always and will always be more than we may consider or think him to be. Though there is much that we can learn from what he has revealed about himself, yet there still remains much, much more beyond our comprehension. This calls for a holy and reverent humility even in our thoughts about God, as we come to understand how much we do not comprehend about him.

But this isn’t something just to be kept as something that we recite as part of a creed. Rather, the truth of God revealing himself as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is central to the reality of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and the experience of the believer is that of God as Trinity. In prayer the believer bows before the God whom he calls Father in consciousness of his or her new identity as a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ. In witness the believer calls Jesus the Son of God in witness to his power and authority as Lord and Savior. In consciousness of that new power to overcome sin and witness to Christ the believer calls the Holy Spirit God in the experience of his or her newness of life.

And even more, this is a truth that has for centuries been carried through into and permeated the worship of believers in Christ, where all three Persons receive worship as God. So many hymns, doxologies and other worship songs rightly include and often center in the triune nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and glorify his salvation as it came from the will of the Father, was fulfilled in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Son, and applied through the conviction, regeneration and sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Maybe there are some big words that are used here, but whenever we try to dumb down what we call worship by soft pedaling or even leaving out entirely the way that God has revealed himself and brought salvation to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we miss so much of the distinctive heart and passion of worship that reflects the New Testament revelation of God.

During the time that he was baptized and endued with the Holy Spirit, then, Jesus was marked out from the Jewish nation at large as the one John the Baptist pointed to  as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Since his death for our sins, resurrection to life and ascension to glory he is the one who gives salvation, namely, eternal life, to those who believe in him as Lord and Savior, who receive and live in his salvation.

The first concern of everyone to whom the Word of God comes is then to consider the matter of whether you have personally received salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. This isn’t something to be presumed simply because you may have attended a church or become a member of a church, or having gone through any rites or rituals, but whether you have made a personal and conscious decision to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through repentance and faith in him alone. Do you have the assurance of having received his salvation, and do you experience the changes that come through having him in your life as a living and conscious presence?

If so, have you followed the Lord in water baptism? Again, don’t presume anything on any kind of previous church association or anything else but what the Word of God says about baptism. Read over and consider what the Word of God has to say, and then follow him in water baptism, as identifying him in his death and resurrection as you go down in the water in death to your old life and rise up through the water as one risen with Christ to live in newness of life.

Have you received the gift and fullness of the Holy Spirit? Consider that the will of God through Jesus Christ is that you be filled with the third Person of the Trinity, whose presence means power and guidance, who is himself the present fullness of salvation and the manifestation of the life of Jesus Christ. In the same manner as Jesus did, come before God in prayer and consecration, and ask and receive his fullness, so that you might live fully for the glory of God in all that you do.

Something I Once Heard . . .

Some years ago, when I was driving through southern Ohio in car with only an AM radio, I picked up a sermon on that radio from an African American preacher. His style of delivery was unique, but I’ve never forgotten the point that he was making: “God isn’t interested in the best that you can do; he’s interested in the best that you can do through the Holy Spirit.”