I think it is safe to say that a lot of people believe that the Holy Spirit is wild and spontaneous. I often joke that the Spirit has the tendency to be labelled or pushed off as the “weird uncle of the Trinity.” For the most part we have a pretty good understanding of God the Father and of course we have the gospels that reveal to us God the Son, but the Holy Spirit for many is slippery, out there, and at best—weird.
While there are undoubtedly a number of instances in both the bible and the history of the church in which the Spirit is wild and spontaneous; I would argue that these instances are more the exception than they are the rule. It seems to me that the Spirit does his deepest work in people and communities that are prepared.
Don’t buy it? Here’s one example.
In Acts 11 and 13 we read about the church in Antioch. Things were happening in the Roman world at this point in history. People were hearing the good news of Jesus and were responding (11:21). The church in Jerusalem caught wind of some of the things that were happening in Antioch and sent Barnabas to check it out.
We learn when Barnabas arrives that there were three explicit things that the church in Antioch was doing that prepared themselves for the Holy Spirit’s activity. Here they are:
1. THEY WERE INTENSE LEARNERS
Don’t miss this!
It was actually intense learning that prepared the church in Antioch for the Spirit’s moving. Acts 11:26 says that “for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.”
I often remind our church community that “to teach” in Greek (matheteuo) is where we get the word disciple (mathetes). It may sound nerdy but… what does this mean? It means that when we teach we embody Jesus’ command to make disciples. The bible and learning is never dislocated from the life of Jesus' disciples. Our learning environments as people who follow Jesus cultivate a place for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. It really isn’t rocket science.
It also must be noted that when the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of people in the bible they tend to speak the scriptures. Just look at Peter, Stephen and Paul in the book of Acts. All of them quoted scripture when they were filled with the Spirit. Jesus was continually quoting the law and prophets. If you want to get a good handle on Jesus and the gospels then you have to have some handle on the book of Isaiah, because Jesus was quoting it all the time.
The point is this: learning the scripture opens up our lives to the Spirit’s work.
Jack Levison puts it best when he says:
“What prepared the church in Antioch to receive this prophetic word was not a flurry of prophetic words or a spell of ecstatic experience or an outbreak of the Spirit with physical symptoms. What prepared the church in Antioch to received the prophetic word was learning."
2. THEY WERE GENEROUS
In Acts 11 it says that a dude (I guess prophet is the more biblical description) named Agabus came from Jerusalem to Antioch and “through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world” (11:28). I think we can all agree that this is not the best news to hear.
What is most remarkable about this is the way in which this multicultural church in Antioch responded. They, as each one was able, “decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (11:29-30).
Leviston points out two really important things about the church’s generosity here. This can’t be missed so stay awake! First, the church in Antioch didn’t give what was needed, but gave on the basis of what they had to give. They were not pulling out credit cards or pledging money they didn’t have. They gave, “as each one was able” or another way of putting it is "they gave according to their ability." Leviston says, “Their generosity came from their sense of well-being and free will.” I love that!
Second, notice this. This church gave to something that had not even happened yet! I think about my own context. I’m not sure how well someone would be received coming from another city to our church gathering and prophesying that a famine was coming. Yet, the way in which the church in Antioch responded was by giving generously.
In all the damage the property gospel has done over the last decade or so I will say this: there is something about being generous that opens us up to the Spirit’s work in our lives. Jesus says if our eye is healthy—which is a euphemism for how we steward money—our whole life will be healthy. There is something that happens when we are generous. It makes our lives good soil for the Spirit to work.
3. THEY PRACTICED COMMUNAL DISCIPLINES
We see in Acts 13 that the church in Antioch practiced communal disciples. It says, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the word to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (13:2-3).
What do we learn? Well, the church worshiped together, they fasted and they prayed in community.
Now, if anything, please don’t miss this. When you read Acts 13 you begin to see that it was on the back of the church in Antioch in which Paul and Barnabas was sent out to the bring the gospel to the gentile world. This has huge ramifications because if you are not Jewish you are a gentile, and this is the part of the story where the church began to spread to predominately gentile cities. This is really good news for us! The walls were breaking down and because the church in Antioch had postured themselves through their communal disciples, the mission to the gentiles started here. (A pretty nice legacy for the church in Antioch I would say!)
I Know What You Are Thinking
Now, I know what you are thinking. Some of you may be thinking, “It’s not about what we do, the gospel is about what Jesus has done for us.” If you’re thinking this I agree with you. We are saved by grace and come into God’s kingdom through faith. It’s simple. Yet, I think one of my spiritual heroes—Dallas Willard—puts it best when he says, “Grace isn’t opposed to effort, but to earning.” If you are not doing anything in the name of “I’m saved by grace through faith” than you are completely missing the point. We have a responsibility to be ready—to cultivate in our lives the things that will make us ready to receive the Spirit’s work.
As Leviston says:
“The whole of these qualities—a commitment to learning, generosity, a multicultural church and leadership team, along with the communal practices of worship, fasting and prayer—is greater than the sum of its parts. Together, theses qualities transformed Antioch into a source of favor and grace… The church was a conduit of the grace of God, a spring of hospitality, a place Paul and Barnabas would naturally return to when their work was done and, as Luke put it, stay there for some time."
I don’t know about you but this is the kind of church I want to be apart of.
So… are you ready?
Grace + Peace,