On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.”
“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” … Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
- Acts 1:21-22, 26
In one passage, Jesus very clearly instructs His disciples to wait on a gift, following the receipt of which they will become witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). In the next, Peter’s taken it upon himself to nominate a replacement for Judas Iscariot’s office, this despite the fact that the promised gift has not yet arrived. Did Peter do well to take initiative on this?
The text doesn’t answer this question directly, but we may presume from the fact that the “apostle” Matthias is never mentioned in again in the New Testament that Peter may have missed the mark here. (I believe Jesus personally chose Paul to fill this vacancy; while this isn’t stated outright, Paul is counted as an Apostle by scripture). Peter is doing what Peter tends to do. He’s impatient, so he attempts to take control of a situation that he can’t see past. He creates his own marching orders, a side-project to work on while he completes his primary mission of waiting on the Holy Spirit.
Fortunately for Peter, God’s promise isn’t contingent on his ministerial competency. The Spirit arrives, and arrives in force; and one chapter later Peter is speaking with a degree of power and eloquence that is clearly beyond his natural abilities.
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
- Acts 2:22-24
The difference is astonishing, isn’t it? Without the Spirit’s presence Peter is awkward, brash, spiritually clumsy, somewhat temperamental, and even cowardly. With the Holy Spirit, Peter is a force of nature, someone to be admired, and certainly not to be trifled with. We’re the same. While I can’t answer in universal terms how we can always tell what the Spirit is saying, it's crystal clear that that direction of the Spirit is needed before we go adventuring on our own.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit (as with most things), many Christians tend to fall off one of two ledges. Ledge #1 is to treat the Spirit as if He is “the force”, here to exalt us rather than Jesus. Not even someone, but something to be controlled, harnessed into some sort of an energy that can be channeled by the Christian to perform signs and wonders. Ledge #2 is to treat the Spirit as if His involvement in our lives is marginal; while He may be important, He is indecipherable and therefore not significant for our purposes. There is no shortage of Christians who are leaping off both of these ledges, and it’s very much hindering our witness in the world.
For our purposes we only need to remember two things:
Heavenly Father, you have blessed your church abundantly by being present in the person of your Holy Spirit. He is our lifeline, our joy, our precious gift from you and your Son, Jesus. It's a tremendous privilege that we can worship and serve you with His direction and in His presence. Please don’t let us ignore this gift; neither let us forget that He is one with you, awesome, glorious, amazing. Teach us to cultivate a relationship with the Spirit that is pleasing to you and forever rewarding to us. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Here we encounter men who have forgotten the purpose of their religion. The nation and the temple are not ends in themselves, they are a means to an end – namely, a relationship with the Most High God. So infatuated have they become with such means that, when a messianic figure starts performing miracles that they can’t explain away, they don’t even stop to consider what that might signal. They miss the Messiah’s coming (presumably what they’ve been waiting for) because they’re in survival mode: trying to protect a religious framework that has become to them the air they breathe. “What are we accomplishing?” Excellent question, terrible answer.
We do this today, don’t we? We grow comfortable in our church services, weekly bible studies and prayer groups. We wrap ourselves in religious activity; our rituals become so precious to us that we can often go through them for weeks without giving any serious consideration to Jesus. Try suggesting a change-up in the Sunday morning routine at your local place of worship and see what sort of reaction you get.
We must never forget that the end of our religion – no, the end of our very faith – is a relationship with God Himself. If anything that we’re doing, especially in our religious lives, detracts from that relationship, it needs to be examined, rethought, adjusted and set right.
Am I suggesting that we should do away with any sort of worship or service at the slightest indication doesn’t make us “feel” closer to God? No, the feeling is not the point; the relationship is the point. Some things we’re just commanded to do – the Lord’s supper for example – and should keep on doing for as long as we’re alive to do it. But even the Lord’s supper – and especially the way in which we do it – can become an empty ritual, an end in itself, if we’re not careful.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.