c) 2012' name='copyright'/>Michael DeShane Hinton: May 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Idea of Spirit in the New Testament

Use of the word “spirit” in the New Testament is very interesting.  The ancient Greeks, including Hellenistic Jews like Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament, believed that the human soul interacted with two outside influences that we Moderns tend not to consider: celestial bodies and spirits.

There are only two astrological references in the New Testament, one when Jesus came the first time … and one when he returns.  The Magi followed their reading of the stars to find Jesus in a manger and worship him as the newborn king.  Jesus and Peter predict astrological “signs” of the second coming but we cannot cover that subject here.

To understand the New Testament use of “spirit,” however, we must become familiar with a term in the history of religions called animism.  In animism the subject is acted upon or animated by a spiritual force or influence, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  But when the spirit acts upon the subject the thinking, behavior, and attitude of the subject is affected in a profound and overwhelming way suggesting total involvement of the person in the spirit.  One of the reasons alcohol is called “spirits” is because we see when someone is drunk how their whole personality is overtaken by the substance.  The operation of some powerful spiritual gifts has the same overwhelming effect.  An example is the apocalyptic vision of John, which is recorded in the Bible as the book of Revelation.  John wrote (1:10), “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.”  The implication is that the visions result from the Spirit’s influence upon him.  In fact, many things in the New Testament are attributed to this phenomenon.  “In the Spirit” or “in the spirit” occurs 17 times.

The existence of spirits or understanding behavior in terms of a spirit corrects several delusions.

The first delusion it corrects is that we can be completely objective about ourselves, assuming that our best judgment, which operates separately from other aspects of our being, will eventually bail us out if we get in trouble.  But is that true?  What if we have a “spirit of stupor” so that our perception of reality is way off, according to Romans 11:8?  Paul seems to think that the Spirit is required to understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:12 and 14).  John speaks of the “spirit of error” in his first letter, chapter 4, verse 6.

In Acts 13:4-12 is the story of a Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who had come under the spell of a Jewish false prophet/magician, who opposed Paul’s ministry.  Even though Sergius Paulus is described as an intelligent man he needed a spiritual intervention.  He received it when the apostle strongly confronted the magician.  It was this kind of encounter that caused Paul to write, “Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV).  “Divine power” here means the same as “in the Spirit.”  One spiritual influence is deployed against another spiritual influence.

The second delusion that that the concept of spirit corrects is the naturalistic fallacy, that phenomenon can be explained solely by a socio-economic or geo-political analysis.  When George Mitchell of Maine was appointed by President Obama to be Special Envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell said, “These are human problems with human solutions.”

Mitchell’s comments are the typical secular humanist approach to conflict resolution that has prevailed since the ethos of REALPOLITIK was adopted in the diplomacy of the Modern era.  The assumption is that everyone will be guided by personal interest, rationally conceived as the just distribution of wealth and power (with America footing the bill, of course).

But what if it is not a human problem?  What if it is a spiritual problem?  What if God exists, and the world is engulfed in a spiritual battle between good (what is of God) and evil (what is not of God)?  What if there are angels and demons, and our prayers decide the outcome to ourselves and others in this cosmic war over our eternal souls?  What if evil can be explained by evil spirits?  And what if the triumph of good can be attributed to our being filled with and led by the Spirit of God?

George Mitchell resigned as Special Envoy, citing intractable positions on both sides.  When problems defy logical self-interest, medication, and rational analysis (such as psycho-therapy) an alternative theory is provided by Scripture’s use of the word “spirit.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Our Spiritual Nature

One of the most important phrases in the Bible is “my spirit.” It defines both human nature and who is ultimately responsible for the disposition of that nature, that is, whether we live as carnal or spiritual beings. Let us review the New Testament material upon this subject.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) Mary says, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When Jesus died on the cross he said (Luke 23:46), “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Likewise, when Stephen was being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr, he prayed (Acts 7:59), “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Paul wrote that he served the Lord “with my spirit,” and said “my spirit” was present when the Corinthians had to discipline a church member, and sometimes when he said “my spirit” prays (Romans 1:9, 1 Corinthians 5:4, and 14:14, respectively).

In other passages we find a similar understanding. Assurance of salvation, for instance can be found in what is called the witness of the Spirit, which involves “our spirit.”

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. –Romans 8:15-17

Finally, in a remarkable passage Paul says that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (1 Corinthians 14:32).

So we human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, have this quality, aspect, dynamic, dimension, and capacity of being, which is called “spirit,” which operates in parallel to cognition (thinking), affect (emotions), and physique (body). Just as we decide what to think, how to feel, and what to do, so we can yield our spirit to good or bad influences. Conversely, just as our health depends on “listening” to body, mind, and heart, so our spiritual health depends on paying attention to what our spirit says. In other words, that we have and interact with our spirit is a fundamental piece of self-awareness that we must possess in order to be whole, sometimes to survive, and it is especially necessary to our thriving and happiness. Not to overstate it, if that is possible, nearly everything in life is ultimately a spiritual issue.

Spiritual formation can be defined, then, as letting and empowering our spirit to form and shape and unify/integrate the other parts of our personality through legitimate and recognized techniques, the first being to receive and be filled with the Spirit of God through repentance, baptism, and faith in Christ (Acts 2:38).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spirituality and Enlightenment

Spirituality is both a perspective and an experience.  The experience is not dependent on the perspective but is greatly aided by it, congruent and synonymous with it.  Scripture describes Christian conversion, for instance, as enlightenment:               
I bear [the Jews] witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. –Romans 10:2
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. –Hebrews 6:4-6
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. –Hebrews 10:32-33
Likewise, the perspective is highly desirable in furtherance of spiritual experience, namely, the deep knowing and assurance of God’s love that we should be able to enjoy, which many consider the foundation of joy in the Lord.  Paul prays that we will be enlightened with an inner knowledge and insight concerning our advantage in Christ:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all. –Ephesians 1:16-23
Notice that in the passage immediately above Paul asks for the gift of enlightenment (may give you).  Therefore, let us ask the Lord to enlighten us with the spiritual perspective revealed in Christ, of which the New Testament speaks.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Spirituality Is First Moral

We should be careful what we attribute to the Holy Spirit.  I have been following closely the big meeting of United Methodists in Tampa, Florida, this week and am alarmed that those promoting sexual sin invoke the Holy Spirit so often.  Scripture says, “Woe to those that call evil good and good evil.”  Spirituality builds on moral purity.  The Spirit is called the “Holy” Spirit for a reason.  Holiness or sanctity is the primary effect that the Spirit has in our lives.  That does not mean holier-than-thou or sanctimonious.  It means integrity.

One of the greatest expositions of the Spirit’s work is found in 2 Corinthians 3 where the Christians are called a letter of Christ written on their hearts.  Then in verses 8 and 9 “dispensation of the Spirit” and “dispensation of righteousness” are parallel terms.

The external law under Moses could not force people into conformity but if the Spirit is alive in us under grace then our desires change and we can, if we wish and work at it, become righteous from the inside out.  This process is the second stage of spiritual formation, once we are sufficiently informed.  Ezekiel said that God would write his law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:27).  The inner law begins to bring us under the discipline of the Lord.  Thought patterns, as well as desires, change.  Change does not come automatically or by magic but with assistance of the Holy Spirit, who is God at work in us to do his own will, when we cooperate, as Jesus said:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.
I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
–John 14:15-21, emphases mine

The first act of spiritual formation, therefore, is repentance and one could rightly say that Christianity is to live the life of a penitent, since our moral transformation is the foundation for all that follows.  Jesus will come to us and fill us if we are a cleansed temple.

Lord Jesus, come overturn the money tables in my life that my Father’s house, my own body, bought by your blood, might become a house of prayerful communion with you in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.