May 27, 2016

Interpreting biblical events

When reading the Bible, how does a person know if events describe something we are supposed to do, or if they are just a description of what happened? Confusion is humorous if not dangerous. Consider this one: “Judas went out and hanged himself.”

Interpretation of historical events uses theological terms of “prescriptive” and “descriptive.”  For instance, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are descriptive. This means they happened in time and are historical events that will not happen again, nor can we copy or imitate them.

A prescriptive event is one that Christians can repeat in their current situation. One example is Paul giving his conversion story to others. All Christians are supposed to do that; it is not a one-time event for one person, but an example and even a command for every believer.

Some events are not as easy to put in one box or the other. One of them is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said about the Spirit . . .

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

As Chambers says, the disciples waited until Pentecost, not just for the Holy Spirit to come on them. They looked first for another event in which the Lord was glorified. As soon as that happened, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” (Acts 2:33)

In other words, the disciples could not be clothed with the Spirit until Jesus had was glorified as He ascended into heaven. He hinted at this earlier when saying that those who believed would be a source of ‘living water’ . . . 

“Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39)

Here, Jesus is talking about historical events. He was and is glorified, and then the Holy Spirit was given. While the Spirit influenced God’s people before that, He was not with us in the way God promised. However, immediately after Jesus was glorified in Ascension, the Holy Spirit came into this world, and He has been here ever since.

Herein lies some confusion. Some think the Spirit is received when a person believes and is born again. The key verse for this is:

“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Others look at the event of Pentecost and think that Christians must also have a second experience where they are baptized by the Holy Spirit, and they insist that this does not happen to everyone.

After studying this topic, I’ve concluded that the Holy Spirit comes into a believer’s life when they are regenerated or born anew. This event is prescriptive in that it happens to all who truly believe in Jesus Christ.

However, that Pentecostal baptism is descriptive. It was a very visible event to show that the body of Christ was now filled with power from on high, a power that changes us and puts us into the family of God. Since that descriptive event, “we were all baptized into one body . . . and made to drink of one Spirit.” As Chambers says, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not an experience apart from Jesus Christ: it is the evidence of the ascended Christ.

How is this practical? I know several people who moan that they are ineffective because they have never had the Spirit’s baptism, or they insist that others must have this in order to be useful to God. They have made a descriptive event (Pentecost) into a prescriptive event and in doing so, robbed themselves and others of the joy of knowing they already have the Holy Spirit and His power.

I can move ahead in faith. My need (prescriptive) is to keep short accounts with God and believe that the Holy Spirit is in me, giving me whatever I need to do whatever God asks. If I wait for some kind of dramatic sign that He is with me, my responses to the Lord will border on disobedience. “Oh God, I’d love to serve you but I cannot until You pour out Your Spirit on me.”

When I talk to God like that, my problem is not that the Spirit is absent, but that I am making excuses for my lack of faith and my desire to instead live by sight. 

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