Experiencing death before we die

It’s an odd thing being a Christian because we experience death before we die. That’s probably why Christians aren’t phased much by dying, because, as Paul said, we die daily, so we’re old hands at death long before our physical bodies die.

We die in the same way we die physically too. When we die physically the vital systems in our bodies that kept us alive start shutting down. It’s like turning off the lights in a large room. As each switch is clicked off, the room slowly darkens, until one final click and the lights go out entirely.

And isn’t that what happens in our Christian lives too? Jesus’ death provided us with the switch to turn the power of sin off, and the Spirit now turns the lights out one by one. The systems that kept us alive before, therefore, like ambition, competition, making a name for ourselves, being popular and liked, self-preservation and security, start shutting down. The room they occupied in our heads slowly darkens until the lights make a last fizz and splutter, and die.

It’s quite something when an old attitude that animated our lives before makes its last splutter and dies, like the attitude of being critical and condemning. For much of our lives, putting others down really got the blood flowing. It made us feel good and alive, and it gave our sagging ego a boost when others made glaring mistakes and we could laugh and scoff at their expense.

But the Spirit’s at the switch gradually shutting that kind of nonsense down, until one day it’s of no interest to us anymore. We don’t need to condemn and judge others to feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t have the same appeal. It becomes a horrible thing we don’t want hanging around in our heads anymore. Get rid of it. Turn it off. And turn it off we do, daily.

And what about those other attitudes that lit up our emotions before, like getting all hoity-toity if someone cuts us off in traffic, or a well-known gossip says things behind our backs that aren’t quite true, or our great knowledge on a subject is exposed as faulty by a snotty know-it-all?

Those things probably squirted all sorts of highly inflammable fuels into our systems before, stirring up fiery anger and heated replies. But the Spirit has been let loose on us now, and he’s at the switch turning that stuff off until it’s dead, and it stays dead, daily. As Christians, then, we experience death many times before we die, as the lights go out on what made us feel alive before.

Can we live a perfect life?

Christ redeemed us from “trying to attain our goal by human effort,” Galatians 3:3, because we can’t attain our goal by human effort. It’s a huge, humbling, and even rather embarrassing lesson, that every human eventually comes to learn, that God didn’t create us with the ability to make our lives perfect.

The only way a human being, relying on his own strength, can make his life work out perfectly both now and forever, is to obey every law governing his success absolutely perfectly. But the story of Israel proves we can’t do it. Even if God was with us like he was with them, blessing us at every turn and offering us paradise on earth if we obey him, we still couldn’t do it. That’s why the story of Israel was written: They didn’t have it in them to do what was needed, and nor do we.

It’s a terrible curse hanging over our heads, therefore, if we’re depending on our own strength alone. We may have the best of intentions, just like the Israelites, or like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, but the flesh is weak. So Christ came to remove that curse. How? By becoming that curse for us (verse 13). He took the “depending on our own strength” curse and nailed it to the cross. No longer, then, would we ever have to think our eternity depends on anything we do, like obeying all Ten Commandments perfectly, or acting all pious and religious.

Instead, Galatians 3:11, the righteous would live by faith. Faith in what, though? The answer to that is in verse 14: “He (Christ) redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

It’s faith in the promise of the Spirit. It would dawn on us that thousands of years ago God made a promise to Abraham, that one day the help we’d need to enter eternity with God would be given to us. The Spirit would work the miracles in our lives that we couldn’t work in our lives ourselves. And that’s what Christ’s death released to us. He took that old self of ours, totally dependent on human strength, nailed it to the cross, and opened up the promise he made to Abraham of the Spirit doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

We could then begin a new life of dependence on the Spirit, like the Galatians did – to begin with. Unfortunately they reverted back to “trying to attain their goal by human effort,” which stirred Paul to write Galatians 3, for their sake, and for ours.

What an odd question: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”

Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19:1 and discovers a little pocket of John the Baptist’s followers. At some point in his conversation with them he asks in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?”

To our ears that could seem like an odd question, because believers are supposed to automatically receive the Holy Spirit according to Ephesians 1:13. The process is the same for everyone: First of all, “you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and then, “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”  It’s a three step process: Hear the gospel, believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit.

That little pocket of disciples in Ephesus, however, hadn’t “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Acts 19:2. And that raised another question in Paul’s mind in verse 3: “Then what baptism did you receive?”

Again, to our ears that might seem like an odd question as well, because what other baptism could there be? To a Jew in Paul’s day, however, there were now two baptisms: There was baptism with water, and baptism with the Holy Spirit, John 1:33. John the Baptist was sent by God to baptize the Jews with water, and Jesus was sent by God to baptize them with the Spirit. First the water baptism by John, followed by the Spirit baptism by Jesus.

The only baptism the disciples in Ephesus had received, however, was “John’s baptism” with water, Acts 19:3. That was good, of course, because God had sent John the Baptist to baptize his fellow Jews with water as a necessary first step, but John had also made it clear in Matthew 3:11 that “after me will come one who is more powerful than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” For the Jews of that time, therefore, there was another baptism to come.

So, when Paul discovered the disciples in Ephesus had only received “John’s baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4, he reminded them of what John himself had said about “believing in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” In John’s own words his baptism with water to repentance was only a first step to the baptism that Jesus would do. And when the disciples in Ephesus realized that, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verse 5, and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 6.

And that was the baptism Paul was interested in, their baptism with the Holy Spirit, because that was what “marked” and “sealed” them “in Christ,” Ephesians 1:13, “guaranteeing their inheritance,” verse 14. When he asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” it’s not such an odd question, is it?

How easy it can be “to blaspheme against the Spirit”

To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Spirit at work. Jesus, for instance, was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” Matthew 12:28, but the Pharisees claimed he was doing it by the power of the devil. How ridiculous, because why would the devil spite his own nose by decreasing his influence in people’s heads? Well, of course he wouldn’t do that. But if it wasn’t the devil casting out demons, there was only one other power capable of doing it – God.

But the Pharisees ignored the obvious. Like a teenager who seeks to justify contempt for his parents by accusing them of not caring when he knows full well they do care, the Pharisees also came up with outrageous accusations to bring contempt on Jesus, so long as it made Jesus look bad. And that’s what counted to them – NOT the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, but rather the chance to score points against Jesus to destroy his influence.

It’s like justifying contempt for other Christians today. Yes, other Christians have problems, they’re not perfect. Some denominations are making glaring mistakes. But they’re also doing a lot of good. They feed the poor, provide shelter, clothing, money, medication, encouragement, comfort, emergency help in disasters, education for struggling families, and they’re willing to go to the worst places on earth to help people. Their doctrines may be completely out to lunch, their churches cold and unfriendly, their manner a bit aggressive or over the top, and their emphasis on hell a bit too steep, but there’s no denying that wherever imperfect Christians are there is a lot of good being done as well.

When Jesus said in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed,” the evidence was overwhelming that what he said was true, because wherever he went people were relieved of demons and dreadful diseases. And all done, Jesus said, by the Holy Spirit.

We have clear evidence, therefore, of how the Spirit works. Wherever good is being done and evil is being suppressed, that’s the Holy Spirit at work. To ignore that evidence is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit. And to seek to score points against other Christians by focusing on their faults is to bring contempt on the Holy Spirit. That’s how easy it can be to blaspheme against the Spirit. As easy as it was for the Pharisees.

The law of the Spirit

According to Paul in Romans 8:2there are two laws that govern human life and well being – “the law of sin and death” and “the law of the Spirit,” and it’s either one or the other that we are controlled by (verses 8-9).

Another way of describing the law of sin and death is the law of “the sinful nature” (verse 3), because it operates just like a law too: “live according to the sinful nature,” Paul writes in verse 5, and automatically, just like a law, we “have our minds set on what that nature desires.” But “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set” – just like a law again – “on what the Spirit desires.” Two laws in action, that automatically control what goes on inside our heads.

The difference for Christians is that we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,” verse 9, and when we’re controlled by the Spirit a law is now operating in our heads that enables us, at last, “to put to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13. This is “the law of the Spirit.”

The Spirit is committed to setting us free (verse 2) by gently and relentlessly transforming our natural instincts and ungodly desires into the nature and desires that Christ has. That’s why the Spirit is also called “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9), because it’s Christ’s nature that the Spirit is gradually installing in our heads, replacing our sinful nature  – and the Spirit will keep on installing Christ’s nature in our heads even when we’re too weak to care. That’s when the Spirit sighs on our behalf (verse 26), to get us back on the road to “life and peace” (verse 6), brimming with confidence and peace of mind again as we find ourselves able and willing to “please God” (verse 8) instead of being “hostile” to him (verse 7).

Fortunately, the Spirit knows exactly what God put in human heads when he created us, so while we’re helplessly unable to be what God meant us to be, the Spirit is carting off the accumulated rubbish that’s been blocking all those lovely desires and longings God tucked away inside our heads in the beginning when he made us in his image.

And like a law, again, there isn’t a time in our lives, or a situation we come up against, that can stop the Spirit working it out for our good (verse 28). He is constantly and faithfully digging away inside our heads creating the same unclogged, smoothly running, freely purring motor that powers Jesus, because “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is (now) living in you,” verse 11.

“Stirring the Spirit” – just right, too much, or not enough?

I’ve been banned from making custard in our household, because when I make it I don’t stir it enough and it gets lumps in it, or I stir it too much and it’s like rubber. I have never got custard to turn out right, and according to the chef in the family it all comes down to the stirring.

Does that apply to how we “stir the Spirit” in 2 Timothy 1:6 too, then? If we don’t stir the Spirit enough, for instance, does that explain why we’re “timid” as Christians and our “power, love and sound mindedness” (verse 7) are lacking? Or does stirring the Spirit too much explain why Christians go all mystical and have strange visions, and speak in odd languages?

But if my stirring – either too much or not enough – determines the Spirit’s effectiveness in my life, then am I not controlling the Spirit? And if I don’t get the stirring just right, like custard, does that mean the Spirit won’t turn out right in me either?

But if both those points are true then it’s absolutely crucial that I know how to stir the Spirit just right to produce the right effect, right? Get it wrong and I either become weak or odd. But, unfortunately, Paul doesn’t explain how we stir the Spirit. All he says is, “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you” (verse 6, NIV), but no explanation as to how we do it.

We need to know how though, surely, because in verses 8-9 we’re being asked to do things like not be “ashamed to testify about our Lord,” to “suffer for the gospel,” and live “a holy life” – none of which, I’ve discovered, come to me naturally. I can’t do them.

But that’s the whole point Paul is bringing out here, because in the next sentence he says it’s “not because of anything WE have done” that makes these things possible, it’s “by the power of God” (8), and because of HIS own purpose and grace.”

That’s good to know, because I’m far too timid by nature to openly testify about what I believe, or risk suffering for the gospel. And I don’t have the power, love, and sound mindedness in me to lead a holy, balanced Christian life at all times in an anti-Christian world either.

But the Spirit can do all those things in me, despite me. Stirring the Spirit, then, is simply recognizing who and what enables us to do all the impossible things God asks us to do. It’s not trying to stir these things from strength within ourselves, it’s trusting the Spirit to do these impossible things in us.

Evidence that the Spirit is at work in us

I’ve met many people who say the Spirit is telling them what to say and what to do, but how do they know it’s the Spirit guiding them and not their own thoughts, ideas and motives? Is it even possible to know if the Spirit is guiding us?

Yes, Galatians 3:2. Paul’s asking a group of Christians when they received the Spirit. But why would he ask such a question if they had no clue what he was talking about?

Well, of course they knew. As soon as they’d believed the message about Jesus Christ, they’d experienced the Spirit kick in, and from that moment on they’d trusted the Spirit to guide them, verse 3. And not surprisingly either, because obvious miracles had begun to happen to them, verse 5. Oh, they knew all right when the Spirit was guiding them. There was clear evidence they could point to, and Paul knew it. That’s why he could ask them when they received the Spirit. He asked because he knew they knew.

The writer of Hebrews is just as blunt. Why on earth, he wonders, would Christians revert back to their old selves when they’ve “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit,” Hebrews 6:4? They knew what it was like to be guided by the Spirit. They’d tasted it, shared it, and personally experienced “the powers of the coming age,” verse 5. They had all kinds of evidence of the Spirit at work in their lives. So they knew, too.

When the Spirit guides it’s obvious. Once we’ve “been enlightened” and “tasted the goodness of the Word of God,” Hebrews 6:4-5, and we’re hanging on to the message of Jesus Christ for dear life, Galatians 3:1-2, 5, then, guaranteed, we have the Spirit’s guidance, with obvious miracles to prove it.

But what obvious miracles? All those listed in Galatians 5:16-26, for a start. The Spirit will happily deal with all the junk in our lives that wrecked our relationship with God and ruined our relationships with people. He’ll happily replace it with lovely qualities instead, the obvious fruits of which will be great relationships with God and people. And we won’t need the law to keep us in line anymore (verse 23) because the Spirit is “crucifying our sinful nature,” verse 24.

So let the Spirit guide, because what we need and long for is what the Spirit does for us. Ever so gradually and ever so gently the Spirit “transforms us into the likeness of Christ with ever-increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is SO gently, though, that we may think the Spirit isn’t guiding us, but if we’re hanging onto the message about Jesus Christ, the Spirit is at work, guaranteed, Galatians 3:1-5.